NASA has established an independent review board (IRB) to proactively assess current plans and goals for the next generation of Earth-observing satellites – NASA’s Earth System Observatory.
The new set of Earth-focused missions will provide key information to guide efforts related to climate change, disaster mitigation, fighting forest fires, improving weather and air quality forecasts, and improving real-time agricultural processes. Within the observatory, each satellite will be uniquely designed to complement the others, providing a 3D, holistic view of Earth, from bedrock to atmosphere.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington DC, said, “The Earth System Observatory will take us into the next generation of remote sensing. We are designing the observatory to give us the most comprehensive view yet of how Earth is changing. By strengthening our scientific understanding, we can provide information for people and communities around the world to plan for the future.”
The observatory seeks to implement recommendations from the 2017 Earth Science Decadal Survey by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which lays out ambitious but critically necessary research and observation guidance for the changing planet.
Areas of focus for the observatory include:
- Atmosphere Observing System, managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which examines: Aerosols – answering the critical question of how aerosols affect the global energy balance, a key source of uncertainty in predicting climate change; and Cloud, Convection, and Precipitation – Tackling the largest sources of uncertainty in future projections of climate change, air quality forecasting, and prediction of severe weather.
- Mass Change, managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL): Providing drought assessment and forecasting, associated planning for water use for agriculture, as well as supporting natural hazard response.
- Surface Biology and Geology, managed by JPL: Understanding climate changes that impact food and agriculture, habitation and natural resources, by answering open questions about the fluxes of carbon, water, nutrients and energy within and between ecosystems and the atmosphere, the ocean, and the Earth.
- Surface Deformation and Change: Quantifying models of sea-level and landscape change driven by climate change, hazard forecasts and disaster impact assessments, including dynamics of earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, glaciers, groundwater and Earth’s interior.
Surface Biology and Geology, Mass Change, and the Atmosphere Observing System had successful mission concept reviews earlier this year. The results of the IRB will be used to inform any architecture changes to the mission concepts prior to this autumn when these missions are expected to enter the concept and technology development phase – known as Phase A – resulting in proposed mission architectures. Surface Deformation and Change is in an extended study phase in advance of Phase A.
Waleed Abdalati, of the University of Colorado Boulder, who co-chaired the 2017 Earth Science Decadal Survey, and Geoff Yoder, former NASA deputy associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, who is also leading the independent review for NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission, will co-chair the new board.
The board is expected to meet for around 12 weeks – the first meeting was in late July – and to deliver a final report in the weeks after its review is complete.