Analyzing a Changing World

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In addition to the amazing things NASA does in deep space and low Earth orbit, one of our top priorities is observing and learning about our home planet. Over the past two weeks, I had the opportunity to view three incredible new Earth observation missions now under construction. These new instruments and satellites will help us expand our knowledge of Earth, including our planet’s weather and climate processes. They’re a vital part of our efforts to improve life for people around the globe and to protect our planet as we learn more about it.

My first stop, last Friday, was in Gilbert, Arizona, where I was joined by David Thompson, the CEO of Orbital Sciences and Gilbert’s Mayor John Lewis to view the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2  in its clean room — an extremely sterile environment to help protect sensitive instruments from any contamination before they are launched to space. You have to don one of the infamous “bunny suits” to enter the clean room, but it’s worth it to see a new satellite in person while it is still Earth-bound.

The measurements OCO-2 will take, combined with data from ground-based observations, will give scientists the information they need to better understand the processes that regulate atmospheric carbon dioxide and its role in the carbon cycle.

This past Tuesday, I took a look at the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) and ISS-RapidScat missions while visiting the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

SMAP is important because it will produce global maps to help scientists track water availability around the globe. It will also help guide policy decisions by improving the accuracy of long-term climate change projections and provide vital early-warning information on agricultural crop yields. SMAP will help improve flood predictions, drought monitoring, and weather and climate forecasts, and will play a crucial role in understanding changes in water availability, food production and other societal impacts of climate change.

ISS-RapidScat will soon be the latest scientific instrument aboard the International Space Station — actually mounted on the station’s exterior. It’s a scatterometer — a radar instrument that can measure near-surface wind speed and direction over the ocean, which can be a vital aid to weather forecasting, hurricane monitoring and understanding large-scale phenomena like El Nino.

OCO-2, SMAP and ISS-RapidScat will be important additions to NASA’s Earth observation capabilities. Together these missions will give researchers unprecedented views of Earth’s soil, oceans and atmosphere. President Obama has made understanding climate change a critical priority, and it’s simply a global challenge we have to meet. 

Also this week, I was happy to unveil a new NASA aeronautics strategy, a cornerstone of which is green aviation and the technologies to reduce the environmental impact of flying.

We don’t live on a partitioned planet. What happens over the United States affects what happens over other countries and vice versa. NASA plays a critical role in developing the ground-based and space-based observation systems to better understand how humans are contributing to a changing world.

Earth science has been central to NASA’s mission for decades. Missions such as the Landsat series of satellites have been helping us establish a baseline of understanding and demonstrating the planet’s changes over the past 40 years. These new missions will help add to that long-term understanding of our planet that is so vital to predicting and understanding its future.

See more pictures of my visit to the OCO-2 clean room here.