National Aeronautics & Space Administration
NASA’s global change activities span the entire Earth Science Division, from satellite observations and technology development to research and analysis that help inform real-life applications of our science. These program elements advance our capacity to observe and explore the interactions among the major components of the Earth system—including the atmosphere, ocean, land, ice, and ecosystems—and to distinguish between natural and human-induced causes and consequences of change.
As of April 2020, NASA’s portfolio included 21 on-orbit missions, whose combined measurements enhanced our understanding of our changing planet. These included new satellite missions and recently launched or newly selected instruments aboard the International Space Station. Several of these came through NASA’s Earth Venture portfolio, which consists of science-driven, competitively selected, cost-capped missions. In addition, NASA has made significant use of its airborne platforms and sensors together with surface-based measurements in targeted campaigns.
In tandem with these missions and measurements, NASA supports applications projects to extend the societal benefits of its research, technology, and spaceflight programs to the broader public. These include the development and transition of user-defined tools for decision support for water resources, health and air quality, ecological forecasting, disasters, food security, and more. Moreover, NASA’s Earth Science Technology Office funds, develops, and demonstrates a broad range of cutting-edge technologies to enable new capabilities and reduce costs, risks, and development times for new Earth science instruments. NASA Earth science satellite data are made widely and freely available through the Earth Science Data System.
To help us understand Earth’s changing atmosphere, NASA recently launched the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 (OCO-3) aboard the ISS, as well as the Hyper-Angular Rainbow Polarimeter (HARP) and the Compact Infrared Radiometer in Space (CIRiS), small U-Class satellites (also known as CubeSats). OCO-3 uses the vantage point of the ISS to focus on regional sources and sinks of carbon dioxide (CO2), contributing to the global CO2 measurements taken by its predecessor, OCO-2. The HARP CubeSat collects information about atmospheric aerosols around which cloud nuclei can form, and the CIRiS CubeSat will help measure the optical and physical properties of clouds, land, and sea surface temperatures, as well as Earth’s radiation budget.
In addition to these space-based projects, NASA also recently completed two suborbital airborne campaigns to help study our atmosphere: the Cloud, Aerosol and Monsoon Processes Philippines Experiment (CAMP2Ex), and the Fire Influence on Regional to Global Environments Experiment - Air Quality (FIREX-AQ). CAMP2Ex and FIREX-AQ focused on regional processes in the Philippines and the western and southeastern United States, respectively. For CAMP2Ex, NASA collaborated with the Naval Research Laboratory and Manila Observatory to investigate cloud formation in the western Philippines, one of the world’s most unpredictable geographic regions for weather and climate modeling. For FIREX-AQ, NASA collaborated with NOAA to investigate the effect of wildfire and prescribed burns on atmospheric chemistry over the United States.
NASA is also planning for new missions in the near future to augment our understanding of the atmosphere. Upcoming launches include the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite to continue measurements of sea surface height (altimetry), together with partners in Europe and NOAA; the Landsat 9 satellite to continue the multi-decade record of land surface measurements with the U.S. Geological Survey; and the and Surface Water Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite to continue and enhance measurements of freshwater and oceans in partnership with France and with contributions from Canada and the UK.
In the past year, major mission-related milestones have included the following:
- NASA selected the Geosynchronous Littoral Imaging and Monitoring Radiometer (GLIMR) instrument to help understand Earth’s changing land and ecosystems. GLIMR will be mounted on a NASA-selected platform for launch in the 2026–2027 timeframe and will provide unique biological, chemical, and ecological observations of coastal waters within the Gulf of Mexico, portions of the southeastern United States, and the Amazon River Plume.
- NASA confirmed the Geostationary Carbon Observatory (GeoCarb) mission. GeoCarb is set to launch in 2022 and will provide observations of column CO2, carbon monoxide (CO), and methane (CH4) across North America, along with measurements of solar-induced fluorescence over the Western Hemisphere.
- NASA also identified a launch opportunity for the Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO) instrument, which is expected to occur in 2022. TEMPO is designed to measure air quality over North America in unprecedented detail during daylight hours.