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Fifth National Climate Assessment - Read the Report

National Aeronautics & Space Administration

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s global change activities span the entire Earth Science Division (ESD), from satellite observations and technology development to research and analysis and 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 July 2023, NASA’s portfolio includes 23 missions in operation, the combined measurements of which enhance our understanding of our changing planet. 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 conservation, disasters, food security, and more. The portfolio also includes programs to develop capacity to use these tools in both the United States and developing nations. NASA’s effort to increase the use of Earth science data in addressing societal issues has been expanded in the past year for all missions and programs under the “Earth Science to Action” strategic framework. Highlighting this focus, NASA—with its interagency founding partners EPA, FEMA, NOAA, USAID, USDA, and USGS—opened an Earth Information Center (EIC) at its Mary W. Jackson Headquarters (HQ) building in Washington, DC, to allow visitors to engage with data, visualizations, and dashboards about our changing planet, as well as to enter an immersive experience that demonstrates the power and scope of Earth science remote sensing observations. The EIC at NASA HQ acts as a testbed for content development that will be pushed to several other EIC public exhibits. Another EIC focus is the development of a companion virtual site that will combine Earth data from across the seven founding agencies. The site will contain an interactive mapping application to help visitors easily access and use data about agriculture, air quality, biodiversity, water resources, disasters, energy, greenhouse gases, sea level rise, and wildfires to make decisions about their lives and livelihoods. 

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 is committed to open-source science to accelerate scientific discovery, broaden and diversify user communities, and increase transparency and reproducibility across Earth science disciplines. NASA Earth Science satellite and sub-orbital data are made widely and freely available through the Earth Science Data System, and efforts are underway for full migration to the cloud to increase the utility of Earth Science data​ by leveraging cloud-native computing for data visualization and analysis. 

The Surface Water Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission, a joint project of NASA and the National Centre for Space Studies (CNES) in France (with contributions from the Canadian Space Agency and United Kingdom Space Agency) has provided its first data, with “first light” products released on March 24, 2023, not long after its launch on December 16, 2022. As NASA’s first open-science compliant science team, SWOT mission team will be releasing pre-validated data sets after the completion of the calibration phase in Fall 2023 to welcome input from a broader science community, followed by a release of fully validated data sets in spring 2024. 

The Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT), launched to the International Space Station (ISS) on July 14, 2022, has entered routine operation and has made significant progress towards its primary goal of mapping the properties of desert surfaces that provide the mineral desert dust in the atmosphere in order to inform forecasts of its role in the radiative forcing (warming or cooling) of the atmosphere. EMIT has also demonstrated its capability to measure distributions of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide and methane in source regions, with a particular emphasis on methane emission point sources for which data are now being made routinely available. EMIT data, together with data from several other NASA and partner satellites, most notably NASA’s two Orbiting Carbon Observatory instruments, will be part of the information to be provided at a U.S. Greenhouse Gas Center currently under development by NASA together with three interagency partners (EPA, NIST, and NOAA). Science integration is a critical component of the GHG Center’s effort to provide actionable, authoritative GHG information to a variety of end users through a coordinated data system. Three initial demonstration areas include: 1) providing more accessible anthropogenic emission inventories, 2) improving understanding of natural sources and sinks of methane and carbon dioxide, and 3) demonstrating the ability to reliably observe and estimate point source GHG emissions. 

In May 2023, NASA selected the latest in its series of Earth Venture satellites, the Polarized Submillimeter Ice-cloud Radiometer (PolSIR) mission to study ice clouds that form at high altitudes throughout tropical and sub-tropical regions, with a focus on determining why they change throughout the day. PolSIR will provide crucial information about how to accurately simulate these high-altitude clouds in global climate models. The mission will involve a pair of CubeSats, flying in orbits separated by between three and nine hours. The principal investigator for PolSIR is Ralf Bennartz at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center will provide the project management team that builds the two instruments, while science operations will be conducted by the Space Science and Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The two spacecraft will be built by Blue Canyon Technologies in Lafayette, CO.

A recent satellite launch for NASA’s Earth Science program was Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollutants (TEMPO) on April 7, 2023. The TEMPO instrument is a UV-visible spectrometer and is the first ever space-based instrument to monitor air pollutants hourly across the North American continent during daytime. It will collect high-resolution measurements of ozone, nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants, data that will revolutionize air quality forecasts. The principal investigator for TEMPO is Kelly Chance of the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. The TEMPO instrument flies aboard a commercial geostationary communications satellite (Intelsat 40E integrated by Maxar) as a hosted payload, with launch provided by a SPACE-X Falcon-9 rocket. 

Also launched in 2023 were the four satellites that constitute the Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) mission. TROPICS measures temperature and humidity soundings and precipitation with spatial resolution comparable to current operational passive microwave sounders but with unprecedented temporal resolution. The TROPICS principal investigator is William Blackwell of the Lincoln Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. TROPICS was launched by Rocket Lab USA (two spacecraft each on May 8, 2023, and May 26, 2023) as part NASA’s Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) launch services contract.

The next satellite launch for NASA’s Earth Science Division is the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud Ecosystem (PACE) satellite, currently planned for early 2024. PACE will extend and improve NASA’s over 20-year record of satellite observations of global ocean biology, aerosols, and clouds. It will advance the assessment of ocean health by measuring the distribution of phytoplankton, tiny plants and algae that sustain the marine food web. It will also continue systematic records of key atmospheric variables associated with air quality and Earth’s climate. PACE has three instruments, the Ocean Color Instrument (OCI), which will be the most advanced instrument of its type ever flown by NASA, and two multi-angle polarimeters, one of which was developed by a Dutch consortium consisting of SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research (SRON) and Airbus Defence and Space Netherlands (Airbus DS NL), supported by optical expertise from the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research.

NASA has continued the process of moving forward with the Earth System Observatory (ESO). This observatory comprises an integrated set of missions that includes the Designated Observables identified by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) in their 2018 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, targeted for launch in early 2024. Individually, these missions deliver important environmental measurements. The NISAR Mission will measure Earth’s changing ecosystems, dynamic surfaces, and ice masses providing information about biomass, natural hazards, sea level rise, and groundwater, and will support a host of other applications. The Surface Biology and Geology (SBG) mission will provide high-resolution (i.e., at the human scale) measures of climate impacts on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, as well as the feedbacks of hydrological, geological, and biological surface processes to climate. The Atmospheric Observing System (AOS) will increase our quantitative understanding of and ability to model aerosol particles, clouds, their interactions, and their impact on weather and climate; storm dynamics; the processes controlling precipitation; and the impact of aerosol particles on air quality. The Mass Change mission will continue the critical mission of measuring the movements of mass within and between Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, land, and ice sheets, as well as below Earth’s surface, enabling monitoring of groundwater and ice sheet changes. 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 (announcement of opportunity released May 6, 2023) involving competitive opportunities for medium-sized instruments and missions. Formulation (Phase A) continues for the ESO missions (SBG, AOS and Mass Change).

NASA continues to conduct numerous field campaigns using surface-based measurements, aircraft, and ships and to support several surface-based measurement networks. In 2023, NASA completed field campaigns from the third Earth Venture Suborbital solicitation, with the final deployments for the Investigation of Microphysics and Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Snowstorms (IMPACTS) and Sub-Mesoscale Ocean Dynamics Experiment (S-MODE) campaigns. 

In summer 2023, a major campaign will be the joint NASA/NOAA Synergistic TEMPO Air Quality Science (STAQS) campaign to measure air quality over three US cities (Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago) using three NASA aircraft and a variety of in situ and remote sensing instruments. Another goal of the STAQS campaign is to improve temporal estimates of anthropogenic, biogenic, and greenhouse gas emissions. The STAQS campaign is being implemented together with NOAA’s Atmospheric Emissions and Reactions Observed from Megacities to Marine Environments (AEROMMA) campaign. The STAQS data will complement and correlate with the TEMPO data that will become available during that time. NASA also plans to fly the Biodiversity Survey of the Cape (BioSCape) airborne campaign in southwestern South Africa, October–November 2023. BioSCape will feature 17 teams of U.S. and South African investigators, two NASA aircraft carrying three imaging spectrometer (hyperspectral) instruments and a laser-scanning lidar, and a large number of in-situ sensors, all to study the distribution and abundance of biodiversity, the role of biodiversity in ecosystem function, and the impacts of biodiversity change on ecosystem services within a global biodiversity hotspot.

In 2023, NASA also began a significant addition to several of its surface-based measurement networks (AERONET, PANDORA, precipitation monitoring) as part of the Increasing Participation of Minority Serving Institutions in NASA Earth Science Surface-Based Measurement Networks. Instruments are beginning to be installed at the proposed locations for the fifteen selected institutions.  

NASA continues to purchase commercial satellite data through its Commercial Smallsat Data Acquisition (CSDA) program, with the aim of making these data available to NASA and U.S. Government-funded researchers. These data have the potential to add new information to the scientific research and applications that are already of focus in the Earth Science Division. In 2023, CSDA completed the evaluation of two vendors—Airbus (synthetic aperture radar data only) and Blacksky. Additionally, the evaluation process has started for three additional vendors—GeoOptics, GHGSat, Capella Space, and ICEYE U.S.