US space agency NASA has announced the launch of a new Earth science mission that will study the behavior and formation of tropical storms and thunderstorms, and how they impact weather and climate models.
The Investigation of Convective Updrafts (INCUS) mission will utilize a collection of three miniature satellites (SmallSats) flying in tight coordination, that will record critical data that helps address why convective storms, heavy precipitation and clouds occur exactly when and where they do.
Part of NASA’s Earth Venture Program, INCUS is expected to launch in 2027 and will be led by principal investigator Susan van den Heever at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
The mission will be supported by several NASA centers including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California; Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Satellite system components will be provided by Blue Canyon Technologies and Tendeg, both of which are based in Colorado. The mission will cost approximately US$177m, excluding launch costs. NASA will announce a launch provider at a later date.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said, “Every one of our Earth science missions is carefully chosen to add to a robust portfolio of research about the planet we live on. INCUS fills an important niche to help us understand extreme weather and its impact on climate models – all of which serves to provide crucial information needed to mitigate weather and climate effects on our communities.”
The INCUS investigation stems from the 2017 Earth Science Decadal Survey by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which lays out ambitious, but critically necessary, research and observation guidance.
Karen St. Germain, NASA’s Earth science division director, added, “In a changing climate, more accurate information about how storms develop and intensify can help improve weather models and our ability to predict risk of extreme weather. This information not only deepens our scientific understanding about the changing Earth processes but can help inform communities around the world.”
According to NASA, climate change is increasing the heat in the oceans and making it more likely that storms will intensify more often and more quickly, a phenomenon scientists continue to study.
Storms begin with rapidly rising water vapor and air that create towering clouds primed to produce rain, hail and lighting. The greater the mass of water vapor and air that is transported upward in the atmosphere, the higher the risk of extreme weather. This vertical transportation of air and water vapor is known as convective mass flux (CMF). Systematic CMF measurements over the full range of conditions would improve the representation of storm intensity and constrain high cloud feedbacks – which can add uncertainty – in weather and climate models.
NASA selected INCUS through the agency’s Earth Venture Mission-3 (EVM-3) solicitation program that sought complete, space-based investigations to address important science questions and produce data of societal relevance within the Earth science field. NASA received 12 proposals for EVM-3 missions in March 2021.
NASA’s Earth Venture Program consists of science-driven, competitively selected, low-cost missions and investigations that enhance observers’ capabilities to better understand the current state of the Earth system and further improve predictions of future changes.