NASA is the only federal agency that is capable of studying the impacts of global warming from orbit. It has more than a dozen Earth science spacecraft/instruments in orbit collecting climate data, contributing to reports on everything from the state of the atmosphere to rising sea levels, with several more planned for launch in the next few years.
Other than the humongous amount of data they collect, NASA also has some of the finest scientists who could be called authorities on climate change analyses. It also has collaborations across the world with various government agencies and space agencies for sharing data and analysis.
The legendary Landsat program is the longest running earth observation program and provides continuous space-based record of Earth’s land in existence since 1972 when the Earth Resources Technology Satellite was launched. This was eventually renamed to Landsat. The most recent, Landsat 8, was launched on February 11, 2013.
Till date, the Landsat series have acquired millions of images of Earth from space and are a unique resource for global change research and applications in a wide array of fields such as agriculture, cartography, geology, forestry, regional planning, surveillance and education. The program is a NASA collaboration USGS. All Landsat data is publicly available for free and can be viewed through the USGS EarthExplorer website.
Currently, Landsat 7 and 8 are the only on-orbit satellites in series. In April 2015, NASA and USGS announced that work on Landsat 9 had commenced, with funding allocated for the satellite in President Obama’s FY2016 budget, for a planned launch in 2023.
Terra is the flagship of NASA‘s Earth Observing System. It carries five instruments — Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER), Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES), Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR), Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and Measurement of Pollution in the Troposphere (MOPITT).
Launched on December 18, 1999, Terra is the size of a small school bus and moves in a circular sun-synchronous polar orbit that takes it from north to south (on the daylight side of the Earth) every 99 minutes. The instruments onboard Terra concurrently observe the planet arth including the atmosphere, oceans, land, snow and ice, proving insights into Earth systems such as the water, carbon and energy cycles. The MODIS and ASTER instruments onboard also provide critical information for assessing and managing natural disasters and other emergencies.
Launched by NASA in 1976, Laser GEOdynamics Satellite-1 (LAGEOS) was the first spacecraft dedicated exclusively to high-precision laser ranging. LAGEOS-2 was built by the Italian Space Agency and came in 1992. LAGEOS provide stable orbital positions against which to measure Earth’s surface. The satellites are studded with 426 reflectors that return a laser pulse to its source on the ground. Measuring the laser’s round trip travel times helps scientists to accurately measure distances for studies about Earth’s shape and continent drift.
Plans are afoot for the launch of LAGEOS-3, which is a joint NASA multinational program along with France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy and Spain. LAGEOS-1 carries a 4×7 inch stainless steel plaque designed by the famous American scientist Dr Carl Sagan.
The Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) mission is part of the New Millennium Program (NMP) program of NASA. It is an advanced development program created to test and validate advanced instruments, spacecraft systems, and mission concepts in flight for future Earth and space science missions.
Understanding physical phenomena like wildfires, volcanic eruptions etc require multiple sensor observations over a period of time. A sensor web approach offers the ability to trigger the imaging of these transient events via in-situ sensors and global-coverage, lower-resolution, on-orbit assets to capture higher temporal, spatial and spectral resolution images. The EO-1, along with other space and ground assets, provide progressive mission autonomy, which in turn is used to identify, locate and image phenomena such as wildfires, volcanoes, floods and ice breakup with high resolution instruments.
The first NMP satellite was launched on November 21, 2000. At least once or twice a day, both Landsat 7 and EO-1 image the same ground areas. All three of the EO-1 land-imaging instruments view all or segments of the Landsat 7 swath and scientists can then compare these “paired scene” images.
The Global Precipitation Measurement Mission or GPM is an international network of satellites that provide the next-generation global observations on rain and snow. It serves as a reference standard to unify precipitation measurements from a constellation of research and operational satellites. Initiated by NASA and Japanese space agency JAXA, GPM today comprises a consortium of international space agencies such as including France’s (CNES), India’s ISRO, and other organiazations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), and others.
GPM is capable of giving very accurate and timely information on global precipitation and is thus helping to advance our understanding of Earth’s water and energy cycle, improve forecasting of extreme events that cause natural hazards and disasters. The GPM Core Observatory was launched on February 27, 2014
The GPM Core Observatory design is an extension of the highly successful rain sensing package of the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), which focused primarily on heavy to moderate rain over tropical and subtropical oceans.
The Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM) of the Jason series is an international collaboration of NASA with others to collect ocean surface data that began with the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite mission in 1992, continuing through the Jason-1 (launched in 2001) and the currently operating OSTM/Jason-2 (launched in 2008) missions. Jason-3 was launched on January 17, 2016 and will extend the time series of ocean surface topography measurements.
NASA and CNES shared the development, construction, and operation of Jason-1. NOAA and the European Meteorologic Satellite organization (Eumetsat) joined the mission on OSTM/Jason-2. NASA and CNES process and distribute data to over 400 scientists from nearly 30 nations.
Long-term measurements will help scientists at NOAA, European weather agencies, marine operators, better understand ocean circulation patterns, global and regional-level changes, and climate change.
The twin satellites of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) were launched on March 17, 2002 and are making detailed measurements of the changes in Earth’s gravity field. This helps in investigations about Earth’s water reservoirs over land, ice and oceans, as well as earthquakes and crustal deformations. The two GRACE satellites, with one following the other around the planet, have completed more than 13 years of continuous measurements.
GRACE is a collaboration with the German space agency DLR. GRACE ground segment operations are currently co-funded by the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences and the European Space Agency (ESA). NASA, ESA, GFZ and DLR are supporting the continuation of the measurements of mass redistribution in the Earth system.
In April this year, data from the GRACE mission helped NASA scientists solve two mysteries about wobbles in Earth’s rotation, which may hold key to knowledge of past and future climate.
The Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment (SORCE), launched on January 25, 2003, provides the total amount of sunlight that reaches Earth and how the sun’s output varies over time. It is capable of state-of-the-art measurements of incoming X-ray, ultraviolet, visible, near-infrared, and total solar radiation. SORCE data helps us understand the sun’s impact on Earth’s weather and climate systems, thus enabling scientists to specifically address long-term climate change, natural variability and enhanced climate prediction, and atmospheric ozone and UV-B radiation.
Launched on May 4, 2002, Aqua has six Earth-observing instruments on board, collecting a variety of global datasets. Its primary mission is to collect data about the Earth’s water cycle, including evaporation from the oceans, water vapor in the atmosphere, clouds, precipitation, soil moisture, sea ice, land ice, and snow cover etc. Today it also collects additional variables including radiative energy fluxes, aerosols, vegetation cover on the land, phytoplankton and dissolved organic matter in the oceans, and air, land, and water temperatures.
Aqua, Latin for water, is part of the international Earth Observing System (EOS). Formerly named EOS PM, signifying its afternoon equatorial crossing time, Aqua was originally developed for a six-year design life but has now far exceeded that original goal.
AURA, Latin for breeze, is for measuring the ozone, gases and aerosols in the Earth’s atmosphere using four innovative instruments. This data is used to study the chemistry of the atmosphere especially changes in the ozone layer, air quality and how they influence climate change.
The Aura spacecraft was successfully launched on July 15, 2004 into a sun-synchronous, near polar orbit. The Aura spacecraft is flying in formation with other Earth observing satellites called the A-Train. Aura flies in formation about 15 minutes behind Aqua in the “A-Train” satellite constellation which consists of several satellites flying in close proximity.
CALIPSO, or the short form for Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation, looks into the role of clouds and airborne particles in regulating Earth’s weather, climate, and air quality. CALIPSO is NASA’s JV with the France’s CNES. As the name suggests, CALIPSO has a LiDAR instrument with passive infrared and visible imagers to probe the vertical structure and properties of thin clouds and aerosols over the globe.
CALIPSO was launched on April 28, 2006 with the cloud profiling radar system on the CloudSat satellite. CALIPSO and CloudSat are complementary to each other and the combined data from these two missions provide never-before-seen 3-D perspectives of how clouds and aerosols affect weather and climate. CALIPSO and CloudSat fly in formation with three others in the A-train constellation.
The CloudSat mission, launched on April 28, 2006, is part of NASA‘s Earth System Science Pathfinder program. It has a highly sensitive radar which is 100 times more powerful than a regular weather radar and is capable of penetrating clouds. Its data is combined with CALIPSO for gaining 3D perspectives into on how clouds form and affect weather and climate. CloudSat was developed in collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency in and launched along with CALIPSO in 2006. Its primary mission was to continue for 22 months for allowing more than one seasonal cycle to be observed.
The Earth System Science Pathfinder Program sponsors missions designed to address unique, specific, highly focused scientific issues and to provide measurements required to support Earth science research. Missions selected in this program support a variety of scientific objectives related to Earth science, including studies of the atmosphere, oceans, land surface, polar ice regions, and solid Earth.
The Cloud-Aerosol Transport System, better known as CATS, measures the pollution, dust, smoke, aerosols and other particulates in the atmosphere. By gaining a better understanding of cloud and aerosol coverage, scientists can create a better model of Earth’s climate feedback processes. It also provides continuity for the CALIPSO mission which is now in its extended phase. CASTs was launched on January 10, 2015.
The system is equipped with a LiDAR instrument mounted on the Japanese Experiment Module’s Exposed Facility and is activated via the International Space Station (ISS) command and data handling system. CATS follows the orbit of the ISS. Since the ISS passes over and along many of the primary aerosol transport paths within the atmosphere, this orbit is best suited for CATS-kind of studies.
Launched on July 2, 2014, Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) is NASA’s first dedicated remote sensing satellite to study atmospheric carbon dioxide – considered to be the main culprit behind global warming — from space. it is a replacement of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory which was lost in a launch failure in 2009 The goal is to improve understanding of the carbon cycle on earth and the processes that regulate atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide for better prediction of increase in carbon dioxide and its impact on Earth’s climate.
NASA’s ISS– RapidScat was launched in September 2014 and installed two days later outside the ISS. The RapidScat instrument is a scatterom’s oceaneter on board the International Space Station which measures Earth surface wind speed and direction. A scatterometer is a microwave radar sensor that can measure the reflection (or scattering effect) produced while scanning the surface of the Earth from an aircraft or a satellite. Stronger signals mean rougher seas, caused by stroner winds. Ocean wind data are critical for short and long term weather forecasts, tracking storms, analyzing climate trends and understanding the interplay of wind, ocean and sea life.
RapidSca replaced NASA’s QuikScat Earth satellite. The data helps meteorologists more accurately predict the marine phenomena that affect human life on a daily basis.
Launched on January 31, 2015, the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission is orbiting observatory that measures the amount of water in the top 5 cm of soil everywhere on Earth’s surface. SMAP is designed to measure soil moisture over a three-year period every couple of days. This permits changes, around the world, to be observed over time scales ranging from major storms to repeated measurements of changes over the seasons.
Initially, the mission used both active radar and passive (receiving natural microwave emissions from the ground) techniques to measure soil moisture. Even though the radar has stopped working the mission continues, increasing our understanding of links between water, energy and carbon cycles.
It was one of the first Earth observation satellites developed by NASA in response to the National Research Council’s Decadal Survey.