Bryan Lawrence : NASA earth exploration

Bryan Lawrence

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NASA earth exploration

A couple of days ago, I reported that NASA was killing off earth observation. Chris, in comments to that post, pointed out that despite the overall change in emphasis the current strategic plan (pdf) in section 3a listed eight new missions. Given I'm supposed to know a bit about this stuff, I thought I'd make sure I was up with the play with NASA's plans. So for the record the NASA planned missions are:

  • the "National Polar Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project" (phew) ... NPP ... which is a tri-agency thing, aiming to ''eliminate the financial redundancy of acquiring and operating polar-orbiting environmental satellite systems, while continuing to satisfy U.S. operational requirement for data ...". A new polar orbiter will be launched in 2009 with a five year design life.

  • Cloudsat and CALIPSO - a pretty important mission from a climate perspective (and being a cloud guy nowadays of significant interest to me), and it launched earlier this year.

  • The Glory Mission - which I have to admit to not having heard of before a bit of research today, is an on and off-again type mission. It looks like it's still scheduled for a 2008 launch, and mission aims are (from one of the glory web sites):

    1. The determination of the global distribution, microphysical properties, and chemical composition of natural and anthropogenic aerosols and clouds with accuracy and coverage sufficient for a reliable quantification of the aerosol direct and indirect effects on climate;

    2. The continued measurement of the total solar irradiance to determine the Sun's direct and indirect effect on the Earth's climate.

  • The Global Precipitation Measurement Mission (GPM). As their web site states, precipitation is a key part of the climate system, and this is a pretty important joint activity with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and other international agencies to develop a constellation of satellites to measure precipitation a global scale. (It appears that Bush's influence on this activity has already been hindering, and it's been further delayed this year! - 2013+?).

  • The Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM)- this is about operational altimetry (i.e. measuring sea surface height with enough regularity to enable the use of the data directly in models via assimilation). It's another massive joint effort involving EUMETSAT, NOAA, as well as NASA and France's CNES. Due for launch in 2008!

  • Aquarius, to be launched in 2009], will be a joint mission with Argentina to measure global sea surface salinity. Again, this is pretty important, because this will help quantify the physical processes and exchanges between the atmosphere, land surface and ocean (i.e. runoff , sea ice freezing and melting, evaporation and precipitation over the oceans).

  • The orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO, scheduled for launch in late 2008) will be producing vertical atmospheric profiles of aerosol content, temperature, CO2 and water vapor. Retrieved data will also include scalar measures of albedo, surface pressure and the column averaged dry air CO2. With a planned resolution of gridded data products of one degree monthly averages, and sources and sinks mapped at a slightly lower resolution, it will still provide enough information to start evaluating the real greenhouse gas polluters. The data may well be politically embarassing!

The document also reports a number of other key NASA activities which are directly related to earth observation (and climate change):

  • Significant work on advancing radar, laser etc technologies to enable new space instruments.

  • They are planning to work with the US Geological Survey to secure long-term data continuity of Landsat type observations,

  • They are making significant progress assimilating EO data into models

  • They are working on policy and management decision support tools, and

  • Working on interagency cooperation to mature their research instruments into operational systems (and to utilise operational systems for research)

So there is no doubt that NASA is doing and will do fabulous earth science that will make huge contributions to understanding anthropogenic (and other) effects on the earth system.

However, what is noticeable is that all these missions (with the exception of GPM) are due for launch in the next three years (and GPM has been heavily delayed, so it's an "older" mission already). One might argue that the baleful influence of politicians is already visible in the lack of new earth observation missions for the next period (or maybe I just don't know about them and they're not yet visible in the strategic plan because they're at an earlier state of development ... I promise to ask some of my colleagues who ought to know more, and if there are things in the pipeline I'll post about them).

Clearly now the EO words have gone from the mission statement, one can anciticipate that it will be even harder to get new missions ... and even harder to justify (with NASA funding) working up the data. However, one can hope that the planned decadal survey by the US National Research Council, referred to at the end of section 3a in the NASA strategic plan, might have strong enough words in it that NASA just has to do the work!

(One might argue that as a kiwi working in Britain I have no right to be bleating about what NASA is and isn't doing, but the fact of the matter is that the climate and environment are global problems, requiring global solutions, and we all need to pull together and use whatever instruments and data we can to make progress, so we all need to know what the key players are up to!)

Categories: environment

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This page last modified Thursday 27 July, 2006
DISCLAIMER: This is a personal blog. Nothing written here reflects an official opinion of my employer or any funding agency.