NASA’s global change activities span the entire Earth Science Division, from satellite observations and technology development to research and analysis, informing real-life applications of NASA 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 human communities.
As of June 2021, NASA’s portfolio included 22 on-orbit missions, the combined measurements of which enhance 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 rising sea levels, NASA recently launched Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, a joint U.S.-European effort. Rising seas are one of the most distinctive and potentially devastating effects of Earth’s warming climate. The Copernicus Sentinel-6/Jason-CS (Continuity of Service) mission consists of two identical satellites that will be launched five years apart. The first spacecraft is Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, named for the former director of NASA's Earth Science Division, Michael Freilich. He was a pioneer in oceanography from space and dedicated his life to better understanding the Earth, with the goal of improving the lives of those who call it home. Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Nov. 21, 2020. Science data began being released to the research and applications communities on June 21, 2021.
In the past year, major mission-related milestones have included the following:
- In February 2020, NASA selected Libera as its first Earth Venture Continuity Mission and will maintain the decades-long climate data recorded from NASA’s suite of Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) instruments. Libera will be integrated with the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS-3) spacecraft to meet three overarching goals: provide seamless continuity of the Earth Radiation Budget (ERB) Climate Data Records (CDRs); develop a self-contained, innovative and affordable observing system; and provide new and enhanced capabilities that support extending ERB science goals.
- In September 2020, NASA confirmed the Polar Radiant Energy in the Far InfraRed Experiment (PREFIRE) mission. PREFIRE will document, for the first time, variability in spectral fluxes from 5-45 μm on hourly to seasonal timescales.
- In February 2021, NASA also selected the cost-effective launch services for the Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) mission, expected to launch in 2022 on three separate rockets to achieve high temporal resolution. TROPICS is designed to provide rapid-refresh microwave measurements over the tropics that can be used to observe the thermodynamics of the troposphere and precipitation structure for storm systems at the mesoscale and synoptic scale over the entire storm lifecycle. NASA launched a test satellite, or pathfinder, ahead of the TROPICS mission in June 2021.
- In June 2020 NASA confirmed the Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT), which will map the surface mineralogy of arid dust source regions via imaging spectroscopy in the visible and short-wave infrared (VSWIR). The maps of the source regions will be used to improve forecasts of the role of mineral dust in the radiative forcing (warming or cooling) of the atmosphere. It is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station in 2022.
NASA’s next major launch is the Landsat 9 mission, a joint activity with the U.S. Geological Survey. Scheduled to launch late in September 2021, Landsat 9 will help continue the multi-decadal record (since 1972) which has proven critical to studies of land cover/land use change and support research and applications in areas such as tropical deforestation and global forest dynamics, urban expansion, water use, coral reef degradation, glacier and ice-shelf retreat, natural and man-made disasters, and climate change.
In addition, NASA has announced the intention to move forward with the Earth System Observatory. This observatory is comprised of an integrated set of missions that includes the Designated Observables identified by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) in their 2017 Decadal Survey for Earth Science, Thriving on our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation from Space, as well as the NASA-Indian Space Research Organization Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) mission. Individually, these missions deliver important environmental measurements. Taken together, as a single Observatory, these missions will provide unprecedented ability to study Earth’s interacting components and the relationship of human-induced and naturally occurring processes in shaping Earth’s present and future. In addition, the NASA Earth System Observatory will include a new, competed Earth System Explorer line involving competitive opportunities for medium-sized instruments and missions.
This understanding of how our planet’s complex systems work together will improve our capability to predict how the distributed variable effects of climate change may play out around the world. Critical to the Earth System Observatory is the work NASA continues through its Program of Record, as recommended by NASEM. These missions include:
- The Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission set to launch in 2022, a partnership with France, Canada, and the United Kingdom to survey the world’s oceans and terrestrial surface water;
- The Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, and ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite scheduled for launch in 2023; and
- The Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder scheduled for launch to the International Space Station in late 2023, as well as others selected and/or agreed upon previously.
NASA continues to conduct numerous field campaigns using surface-based measurements, aircraft, and ships. While field-based activities were limited in much of 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, significant in-field presence included test and/or data acquisition deployments occurred. Several significant airborne campaigns selected as part of the Third Earth Venture Suborbital solicitation were able to obtain data during 2021, including Dynamics and Chemistry of the Summer Stratosphere (DCOTTS), Delta-X, Aerosol Cloud meTeorology Interactions oVer the western ATlantic Experiment (ACTIVATE), the Delta-X campaign, and Sub-Mesoscale Ocean Dynamics Experiment (S-MODE). Another field campaign, the ship-based EXport Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing (EXPORTS) campaign, provided critical information for quantifying the export and fate of upper ocean net primary production using satellite observations and state-of-the-art ocean technologies. As part of an international and intergovernmental collaboration, NASA participated in the Michigan-Ontario Ozone Source Experiment (MOOSE) and plans to conduct the Convection Processes Experiment–Aerosols and Winds (CPEX-AW), coordinated with the European Space Agency (ESA) to study atmospheric dynamics while underflying ESA’s Aeolus satellite in collaboration with ESA-supported investigators. Future campaigns also include the joint NASA-NSF Asian Summer Monsoon Chemical and CLimate Impact Project (ACCLIP) deploying from South Korea and NASA’s contribution to the DOE-led Tracking Aerosol Convection interactions ExpeRiment–Air Quality (TRACER-AQ) campaign over Houston.
Federal partners for current and future campaigns include DOE, the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Land Management, USDA Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NSF, EPA, National Center for Atmospheric Research, NOAA, Naval Research Lab, and the Office of Naval Research.