Too Remote, Too Wild, and Too Cold: Helping Satellites See Arctic Greening With Boots on the Ground

Pixel walkers (left to right) Logan Berner, Patrick Burns, Ben Weissenbach, Julia Ditto, Madeline Zietlow, Russell Wong. Photo by Roman Dial.
Pixel walkers (left to right) Logan Berner, Patrick Burns, Ben Weissenbach, Julia Ditto, Madeline Zietlow, Russell Wong. Photo by Roman Dial.

by Roberto Molar Candanosa

Far up in northern Alaska, Logan Berner’s legs are burning with pain from trekking over tussocks in grassy valley bottoms and rugged, cloud-choked mountain passes. He’s spending a couple of weeks of 2021’s summer traversing the mountainous Brook Range, carrying just the essentials to sustain him in the expanse of the Alaskan Arctic. There, where North America ends, tundra and mountains make up one of the continent’s most pristine landscapes.

The Brooks Range is not the sort of environment where people just go for a hike. It’s too remote, too wild, and too cold. There are no human trails other than what’s left behind by moose, bears and other wild animals roaming the region. It’s the kind of terrain that will get you in trouble, the kind that would put you face to face with a hungry grizzly bear or give you hypothermia.

Rain gear is non-negotiable. 2021 marked one of the wettest summers on record in the range, and some days in the trek feel like an endless walk through a car wash. Stopping for more than a few minutes (even to eat) will make your body too cold from the whipping wind and pouring rain near freezing temperatures.

Roman Dial leads the team in the barren mountains of northern Alaska’s Brooks Range. Photo Courtesy Logan Berner
Roman Dial leads the team in the barren mountains of northern Alaska’s Brooks Range. Photo Courtesy Logan Berner

Berner, a research ecologist from Northern Arizona University, went out there to join a group of biologists led by Roman Dial, a professor of biology and mathematics at Alaska Pacific University who had been traversing the range on foot for nearly a month. Covering nearly 800 miles in about three months, the team used their smartphones to take pictures and jot down extensive notes about the vegetation they passed, noting when and how the type and density of trees, shrubs and other plants changed along their way.

By combining those notes with techniques that analyze greenness from space, the team wants to gain a better understanding on the extent and nature of the impacts of climate change right at the boundary between Arctic tundra and boreal forest. The idea is to use that data, recorded the old-fashioned way with boots on the ground, and link them with NASA’s long-term satellite observations.

The Arctic is warming nearly twice as fast as other regions on Earth, and the impacts extend beyond glaciers melting, sea ice shrinking and other types of vanishing polar ice. They reach most deeply into places such as the Brooks Range, where Arctic tundra—a harsh, treeless ecosystem where mostly small plants grow—has become increasingly greener.

Earth-observing satellites have detected Arctic tundra becoming greener in recent decades as the growing seasons became warmer and longer. Landsat satellite observations indicate that about 22% of the Arctic became greener from 2000 to 2016, while 5% became browner. Adapted from Berner et al. (2020).
Earth-observing satellites have detected Arctic tundra becoming greener in recent decades as the growing seasons became warmer and longer. Landsat satellite observations indicate that about 22% of the Arctic became greener from 2000 to 2016, while 5% became browner. Adapted from Berner et al. (2020).

Over the last four decades, satellites have detected that greening, as well as some browning, where extreme weather, insect pests, and other disturbances reverse the greening trend. But even though satellite records suggest Arctic tundra ecosystems are changing in response to atmospheric warming, important details remain unclear about why specific regions have greened or browned in recent decades.

“Arctic greening is really a bellwether of global climatic change,” Berner said. “We know that this greening signal in part reflects warmer summers, increasing the amount of plant growth that’s occurring on the landscapes, so that the satellites are seeing this increase in leaf area.”

Researchers from Northern Arizona University traveled on an 11-day segment with Alaska Pacific University scientists, who completed a summer-long trek through the western Brooks Range in northern Alaska. Photo Courtesy Logan Berner
Researchers from Northern Arizona University traveled on an 11-day segment with Alaska Pacific University scientists, who completed a summer-long trek through the western Brooks Range in northern Alaska. Photo Courtesy Logan Berner

Already, the effects of these vegetation changes point towards other impacts as the Arctic tundra becomes more productive and shrubbier.

For example, Berner explained, thriving shrubs could out compete smaller plants that serve as important subsistence resources, like blueberries, which help sustain northern human communities. Dial also has observed that these vegetation changes can re-shape the landscape and affect how caribou and other migratory animals navigate the Brooks Range, also affecting the availability of subsistence resources for isolated villages depending on wildlife.

On the flip side, new spruce tree forests can also help insulate the thawing permafrost and possibly reduce the release of deep pools of carbon stored within it, adding more heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.

“In that sense, [greening] might slow the rate of climate change by keeping that organic-rich permafrost carbon soils frozen and locked away,” Berner said.

To better understand impacts of climate change on vegetation in the Alaskan Arctic, a group of researchers are linking long-term NASA satellite observations with ecological field data collected while trekking through the Brooks Range in northern Alaska. Photo by Roman Dial.
To better understand impacts of climate change on vegetation in the Alaskan Arctic, a group of researchers are linking long-term NASA satellite observations with ecological field data collected while trekking through the Brooks Range in northern Alaska. Photo by Roman Dial.

Because of the unknowns revolving around Arctic greening and browning, field data serves as a crucial complement to satellite observations. Gradients of vegetation stripe the Brooks Range, making it an ideal location to sample from, as the mountains form a natural barrier that separates the boreal forest of Alaska’s interior from the Arctic tundra of Alaska’s North Slope.

NASA’s satellites can track large-scale vegetation changes from space. But 700 miles up in space, they mostly get a top-down view of the terrain. By venturing into the wilderness to collect the extensive ecological field data that is impossible to capture from space, Berner and Dial’s team are helping the satellites “see” more and better.

The team is combining their detailed notes from the ground with satellite observations of the region by the Landsat program. Ultimately, linking both datasets can help scientists learn more details about where, why, and how large patches of the Arctic’s flora are changing.

“Being on the ground and walking through these landscapes gives you a much better sense for what these landscapes are,” Berner said. “It gives you an understanding of these ecosystems that you just can’t get by sitting at a computer and crunching data.”

Boreal forest gives way to sparse tundra while heading north into the Brooks Range. Photo by Logan Berner.
Boreal forest gives way to sparse tundra while heading north into the Brooks Range. Photos courtesy Logan Berner and Roman Dial

The team was able to trek and take data largely thanks to Dial, who has travelled over 5,000 miles throughout the Brooks Range during the last four decades. As part of that exploration, Dial developed ingenious ways to travel light for extended periods of times, making it more manageable to collect data from the field.

“When doing fieldwork in remote Arctic, Antarctic and alpine environments, survival comes first, so you can sometimes feel lucky to perform any research along the way at all,” Dial said. “But our methods of travel have evolved to the point where we can travel light and comfortably—dealing with rivers and bears and rain and wind. By integrating that light and comfortable mode of travel with smartphones and simple tools like tape measures and tree increment borers, as well as other apps on our phones that can measure heights, we can actually collect valuable and useful data across vast swaths of wilderness.”

What really makes recording data on the field possible is what Dial named “pixel walking,” a unique way in which a group of trekking scientists document observations about the vegetation as they see it on the ground, logging changes in plant types, attributes, and location continuously. Their protocols to record that information cover 30-square-meter plots of land, or  a pixel of a view from a Landsat satellite.

Most previous field research has involved establishing field plots and meticulously characterizing the plant community in each one. That does provide valuable information, but the approach is expensive, limited in extent and time-consuming. Because field plots tend to be small and few, it can be difficult and prohibitively expensive to cover large areas accurately, and to match them with observations from space.

With a smartphone app developed by Dial’s team, the trekkers note the tallest plant community and its physical structure as might be seen from an orbiting satellite. They also record what isn’t so easy to see from space: the understory and ground cover. As they walk, they record on their smartphones’ app the identity and density of each of three layers of vegetation. The app also records the geographic location with the phone’s GPS.

Scientists record visual observations of plant community composition and density through the Brooks Range in northern Alaska. Photo by Roman Dial.
Scientists record visual observations of plant community composition and density through the Brooks Range in northern Alaska. Photo by Robert Burns.

“It’d be very expensive to collect this kind of data with a helicopter,” Dial said. “This is a really important aspect of ground truthing and calibrating what the satellites see with what’s on the ground. From satellites we only know that the reflectance values are changing over time, but we don’t know what it is that’s changing on the ground. So this is a way to find out what is really happening with plant communities and the Earth’s surface and relate it to the last 20 years of satellite data.”

Berner, supported by NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE for short) and Dial’s team, supported by NASA’s Alaska Space Grant, the National Science Foundation’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, and the Explorers Club/Discovery, are already working to link their field observations with satellite data. What they’ll learn can also help inform future research in other parts of the Arctic.

“What is the greening that we see? Is the greening an increase in willows, for example? Is it an increase in birch? Or is it an increase in alders? Or is it an increase in trees?” Dial said. “Having a small team like mine actually on the ground to provide the ABoVE program with ground-based data—that’s really what ABoVE is doing well. It’s just a really wonderful marriage between field data collection and remote sensing.“

Landsat Launch Brings City of Lompoc Together

Landsat team members from NASA, partner agencies and companies, and the city of Lompoc cut the ceremonial ribbon to dedicate the Landsat mural in downtown Lompoc, California on September 26. Credit: NASA / Jessica Evans

By Jessica Merzdorf Evans //LOMPOC, CALIFORNIA//

In early 2021, local artist (and Lompoc Mural Society curator) Ann Thompson competed in and won the call for artists to commemorate Landsat 9’s launch and the Landsat program’s 50th anniversary. Along with representatives from NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, United Launch Alliance, and the city of Lompoc, Thompson helped dedicate the mural for its official opening on September 26, 2021, one day before Landsat 9’s launch.

Artist Ann Thompson poses with her newly-dedicated “50th Anniversary of Landsat” mural in downtown Lompoc, California. Credit: NASA / Jessica Evans

Lompoc, California, has a lot of murals — 40 and counting, according to the city’s website. Some depict local flora and fauna, some show important events and people in the city’s history. The new mural depicts a stylized Landsat 9 orbiting Earth, with colorful pull-out frames showing Landsat images of changing glaciers, bright landscapes, and Santa Barbara County, California – home of Lompoc and Vandenberg Space Force Base. Another pull-out in the corner shows the timeline of the Landsat program, from Landsat 1’s launch in 1972 through Landsat 9.

This image shows the timeline of Landsat launches, from Landsat 1 in 1972 through Landsat 9 in 2021. Credit: NASA / Matthew Radcliff

The city of Lompoc sponsored or highlighted a number of events in the week leading up to launch, including workshops, educational events, talks, and art exhibits. 

At the Lompoc Aquatic Center across town, educators from the Landsat and ICESat-2 teams (Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2) demonstrated how their two missions track land and sea ice around the world. 

Landsat education outreach coordinator Allison Nussbaum shares Landsat materials and information with a family at the Lompoc Aquatic Center on September 26. Credit: NASA / Jessica Evans
ICESat-2 outreach lead Valerie Casasanto places an inflatable penguin into the pool at the Lompoc Aquatic Center on September 26th. Casasanto and her Landsat colleagues ran demonstrations on land and sea ice at the aquatic center as part of the outreach events surrounding Landsat 9’s launch. Credit: NASA / Jessica Evans

Launching a new satellite to space is often more than just a scientific achievement – it can be a community-wide event that gives educators, artists, and local citizens a chance to be part of the celebration. This week, the city of Lompoc is helping to paint a picture of the Landsat program’s future.

Liftoff for Landsat 9

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the Landsat 9 satellite onboard launches, Monday, Sept. 27, 2021, from Space Launch Complex 3 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The Landsat 9 satellite is a joint NASA/U.S. Geological Survey mission that will continue the legacy of monitoring Earth’s land and coastal regions. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the Landsat 9 satellite onboard launches, Monday, Sept. 27, 2021, from Space Launch Complex 3 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The Landsat 9 satellite is a joint NASA/U.S. Geological Survey mission that will continue the legacy of monitoring Earth’s land and coastal regions. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

By Jessica Merzdorf Evans //LOMPOC, CALIFORNIA//

11AM, Lompoc Airport

Launch day dawned gray and cool, with low-hanging cloud cover and a light drizzle. While the launch crew ran through their final procedures and checks before launch, I went to the public viewing site at Lompoc Airport, where several tents’ worth of activities and a “not-quite-life-sized” cutout of Landsat 9 greeted visitors.

In the activity tents, families were solving floor and table puzzles with Landsat imagery, while members of the outreach team helped kids make colorful mosaic art, use “pixel” stickers to reconstruct an image, and understand how satellites measure sea ice.

Young guests use colored “pixel” stickers to reconstruct a Landsat image in the activity tent at Lompoc Airport on September 27th. Credit: NASA / Jessica Evans
Young guests use colored “pixel” stickers to reconstruct a Landsat image in the activity tent at Lompoc Airport on September 27th. Credit: NASA / Jessica Evans

Ten minutes before launch, the tents started to empty out as people moved toward the open airport runway that pointed toward the launch site, about 10 miles away. I moved into the VIP viewing area reserved for NASA personnel and invitees. Some settled in for a view from bleachers or sheltered under a tent; some trekked far down the empty runway. I decided to head down the runway and try to get a glimpse of the Atlas V rocket as it cleared the launch pad.

Because of the low-hanging clouds, our view of the launch was three seconds of bright flaming light on the horizon before the rocket was swallowed up in the gray sky. Even from ten miles away, however, I could see the exhaust clouds billowing up from the launch pad and hear the earth-shaking, deep bass roar of the powerful engines powering the rocket toward orbit.

The gathered crowd strained their eyes eagerly toward the sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of the rocket as it hurtled toward space. Some people embraced as they felt the sound wash over them; some pointed or shaded their eyes; some cheered and clapped, while others stood quietly to listen to the rocket’s roar arcing high into the sky and overhead.

The Atlas V rocket carrying Landsat 9 and four CubeSats lifts off from the launchpad at 11:12AM Pacific time / 2:12PM Eastern time, Monday, September 27th, as employees and guests of NASA and partner agencies look on. Credit: NASA / Jessica Evans
The Atlas V rocket carrying Landsat 9 and four CubeSats lifts off from the launchpad at 11:12AM Pacific time / 2:12PM Eastern time, Monday, September 27th, as employees and guests of NASA and partner agencies look on. Credit: NASA / Jessica Evans

The payload and booster reached orbit about 16 minutes after launch, and Landsat 9 separated from its booster about an hour later, joining Landsat 8 and the rest of NASA’s Earth-observing fleet.

One special guest at the airport was Virginia Norwood, affectionately known as the “Mother of Landsat.” Norwood and her team designed and built the Multispectral Scanner System aboard Landsat 1, half a century ago.

Virginia T. Norwood (center, with cane), the “Mother of Landsat,” poses with the “Ladies of Landsat” group at a post-launch talk and celebration at Montemar Wines, Lompoc, California, on September 27th. Credit: NASA / Jessica Evans
Virginia T. Norwood (center, with cane), the “Mother of Landsat,” poses with the “Ladies of Landsat” group at a post-launch talk and celebration at Montemar Wines, Lompoc, California, on September 27th. Credit: NASA / Jessica Evans

Landsat 9 is safely in orbit and ready to start collecting data and taking its place in the nearly 50-year legacy of Landsat Earth observations. But that legacy is not only Landsat’s critical data continuity and technical achievements – it is also the legacy of the engineers, scientists, technicians, and resource managers who keep the program thriving, decade after decade.

In Lompoc, Scientists Gather for Landsat Trivia Night

By Jessica Merzdorf Evans //LOMPOC, CALIFORNIA//

It’s a smoky Saturday evening in the small town of Lompoc, California, and most of the streets are quiet — except for the warmly lit tables and flickering tiki torches in the outdoor dining area at Hangar 7. It’s Landsat Trivia Night, and the small restaurant is bustling with about three dozen scientists, engineers, project managers, and techies of all sorts from NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the United Launch Alliance. They’ve gathered under the lights to enjoy pizza and drinks and to show off their knowledge of the 49-year-old Landsat program and its nine satellites.

I take my position along a stucco wall with a huge mural of local plants and animals and listen as the teams rev up for their first question.

“What was the name of Landsat 1 at the time of its launch?” The voice comes from Ginger Butcher, Landsat’s outreach coordinator. Guests lean in to discuss.

Not being a participant, I quietly check Google for the correct answer. It’s ERTS, the Earth Resources Technology Satellite. Launched in 1972, Landsat 1 / ERTS was the first satellite launched to space with the goal of studying and monitoring Earth’s land masses, and it pioneered the science and technology that undergirds much of our Earth-observing research today.

The teams hand Ginger their guesses on pieces of paper. Unsurprisingly, most get the question right. Many of these people have spent years working in the Landsat program, whether as program managers guiding the satellites from concept to launch, engineers overseeing construction and testing, or scientists interpreting Landsat data.

The next question is harder: Cartographer Betty Fleming discovered a tiny island about the size of a football field using Landsat 1 satellite imagery. Off the coast of what country is Landsat Island?

Landsat Island, I learn, is off the coast of Newfoundland in Canada – and the person who verified its existence almost died while doing so. You can read the full story here, but suffice to say, it involved a scientist who got swatted at by a polar bear while being lowered onto the island by helicopter. (Spoiler alert: he survived.)

I’m impressed when several teams get that question right too. The third one, though, I don’t need Google to answer.

“Set in 1973, a year after Landsat 1’s launch, what origin story movie did Landsat play a role to locate an uncharted island in the Pacific?”

The 2017 film “Kong: Skull Island” features Marc Evan Jackson, who plays a NASA scientist named “Landsat Steve.” Jackson also partnered with NASA in 2020 to narrate the “Continuing the Legacy” video series. Nearly every team gets this question right.

In a break between rounds, I chat with a team that named itself ERTS-1. At the table is Steve Covington, principal systems engineer for USGS’ National Land Imaging Program.

“I’m feeling great about launch on Monday,” he said. “It’s going to be cloudy, but I think it’ll be very successful. I’m excited about Landsat 9 getting up there and joining Landsat 8 — and giving Landsat 7 a well-deserved rest.”

Landsats 8 and 9 will work together to cover all of Earth’s land masses every eight days — cutting in half the current 16-day coverage time. Covering the Earth more frequently means scientists can detect changes that happen over a few days instead of a few weeks, giving them more insights into what’s happening on our planet’s land surface.

The group’s enthusiasm for the mission and the launch spills over into the festive atmosphere of the game. And at the end of the night, the grand prize goes to the New Originals — a group of Landsat communicators, educators, and scientists that includes Landsat 9’s project scientist, Jeff Masek.

Events like trivia night highlight the celebration and camaraderie surrounding a satellite launch, which, for many, often represents a pivotal moment, a demonstration of many years of hard work. When Landsat 9 launches Monday, it will continue a legacy that stretches back nearly 50 years, and includes decades of human stories as well as scientific ones — an achievement that is anything but trivial.

 

 

‘The most exciting beep I’ll ever hear’

 
Mechanical and electrical support equipment for NASA’s Landsat 9 observatory being processed inside the Integrated Processing Facility at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, on June 24, 2021. The equipment includes a secondary payload adapter and flight system for a group of microsat payloads, called CubeSats, that will launch with Landsat 9 as secondary payloads.
Mechanical and electrical support equipment for NASA’s Landsat 9 observatory being processed inside the Integrated Processing Facility at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, on June 24, 2021. The equipment includes a secondary payload adapter and flight system for a group of microsat payloads, called CubeSats, that will launch with Landsat 9 as secondary payloads. Credit: NASA / Jerry Nagy

By Jessica Merzdorf Evans // NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MARYLAND //

When the Landsat 9 satellite launches to space next week, it won’t be going alone. NASA is partnering with the U.S. Space Force to launch four CubeSats — miniature satellites — on the same Atlas V rocket that’s taking Landsat 9 to its orbit 438 miles above Earth.

While some of the missions sport adorable names — they’re dubbed CUTE (Colorado Ultraviolet Transit Experiment), CuPID (Cusp Plasma Imaging Detector), and Cesium Satellites 1 and 2 — these little satellites are pioneering some serious science and technology.

The four CubeSats are mounted on a ring-shaped frame, called the ESPA, or the “Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter.” (The program’s name, EFS, stands for ESPA Flight Systems.) The ESPA will ride with Landsat 9 inside the top section of the rocket, the payload fairing. After the rocket’s second stage, called the Centaur, safely boosts Landsat 9 to its orbit, it will drop to a lower orbit and send the CubeSats on their way.

“This is a pathfinder mission for NASA, so the process for doing it was undefined,” said Theo Muench, a NASA engineer and the partnership’s program manager. “NASA has never flown an ESPA ring with secondary payloads inside the fairing before, so we had to work with all our stakeholders to invent a plan to fly.”

Rideshare programs aren’t new — programs like NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) regularly coordinate rides for small satellites with larger missions. The Air Force, Space Force and commercial launch providers like SpaceX have let satellites tag along on their missions too. But the new EFS partnership provides access to more missions between NASA and the Space Force, increasing the number of options available to mission designers.

“This program is a big cost-saver, because a lot of times you can buy an ESPA ring for a fraction of what it would take to buy a small launch vehicle,” said Maj. Julius Williams, chief of the U.S. Space Force’s Mission Manifest Office, or MMO. The MMO’s goal is to seek out launch partnerships with other agencies. “If someone were to procure a satellite launch vehicle on their own, they wouldn’t use as much of the vehicle capability, on top of the fact that they’re using those funds themselves. This partnership saves taxpayer dollars for other programs.”

Two of the hitchhikers, CUTE and CuPID, are science satellites. CUTE is funded by NASA and managed by the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) in Boulder, Colorado. The little satellite will carry a space telescope and a spectroscope, measuring near-ultraviolet light to learn about the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system. Specifically, they’ll be looking at escaping gases from “hot Jupiters” – large planets that orbit close to their parent stars. The team will study how these planets lose atmosphere in their suns’ heat, to better understand how likely atmospheres are to survive on all types of planets.

University of Colorado graduate student Arika Egan leads installation of the CUTE CubeSat into the EFS dispenser system at Vandenberg Space Force Base on July 23, 2021. Credit: NASA / WFF
University of Colorado graduate student Arika Egan leads installation of the CUTE CubeSat into the EFS dispenser system at Vandenberg Space Force Base on July 23, 2021. Credit: NASA / WFF

CUTE is smaller than the average space telescope, and the team is excited to push the envelope technologically as well as scientifically. “The cool story of CUTE is how all the ambitions we packed in at the beginning came together in the end,” said project scientist Brian Fleming, a researcher at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “In the early days, it was a big challenge to get the science performance we needed from this little ‘cereal box.’ We approached it with a little bit of fun—every time we came up with a new crazy idea, we said ‘okay, let’s try that too.’ That approach really paid off, and CUTE can do some amazing things for its size.”

The second science CubeSat, CuPID, will take measurements closer to home — this mission will study the interactions between the Sun’s plasma and Earth’s magnetosphere, or the protective “bubble” formed by Earth’s magnetic field that keeps harmful solar radiation away from the surface.

(To learn more about CuPID, check out their spotlight here.)

Cesium Satellites 1 and 2 are experimental satellites owned by CesiumAstro, an aerospace company that specializes in space communications. These CubeSats will test an antenna technology called an active phased array, which uses electromagnetic interference to move a signal beam without moving the physical antenna. This technology could make future satellites easier to use and repair, with fewer moving parts to break down. “Riding along with Landsat 9 provides Cesium Mission 1 with the opportunity to test their products in space before selling them to consumers,” said Scott Carnahan, Cesium Mission 1 manager.

Delivering the CUTE satellite marked a bittersweet moment, since it’s been “this presence with us for almost four years,” said CUTE lead investigator Kevin France, an associate professor at the University of Colorado.

“Right now, I’m most excited to hear the first beep back from the satellite on launch day,” Carnahan said. “When you go through all the tribulations to get a satellite up to orbit, you want it to get up there and be safe. That will be the most exciting beep I think I’ll ever hear.”

Landsat 9 is a partnership between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Meet Landsat 9

An artist’s conception of the Landsat 9 spacecraft, the ninth satellite launched in the long-running Landsat program, high above the agricultural fields in California’s Central Valley and the Western US. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center / Conceptual Image Lab

by Jenny Marder //VANDENBERG SPACE FORCE BASE, CALIFORNIA//

It’s less than four days before the planned launch of Landsat 9, and the perfect time to learn about this amazing satellite and the nearly 50-year-old Landsat program. Did you know:

Landsat gives us the longest continuous space-based record of planet Earth.

Since the first satellite launched in July 1972, the mission’s eight satellites provide five decades of information about our planet’s land and atmosphere. And they show us how our planet is changing. This will continue with the Landsat 9 launch, providing more data and higher imaging capacity than past Landsats.

Landsat 9 will carry two science instruments …

The Operational Land Imager 2, or OLI-2, sees at a spatial resolution of 49 feet for its panchromatic band, which is sensitive to a wide range of wavelengths of light, and 98 feet for the other multispectral bands. Its image swath is 115 miles wide, with enough resolution to distinguish land cover features like urban centers, farms and forests.    

The Thermal Infrared Sensor 2, also known as TIRS-2, measures land surface temperature in two thermal infrared bands using principles of quantum physics to measure emissions of infrared energy.

… and it will orbit the Earth at an altitude of 438 miles. 

That’s roughly the distance between Dallas and Memphis.

Landsat has shown us how dynamic the planet is in response to human activities.

“When you grow up in an area, you don’t really notice the changes that occur over years and decades,” Dr. Jeff Masek, NASA Goddard’s Landsat 9 Project Scientist, told Dr. Alok Patel in December 2020 for PBS’s NOVA Now podcast. “But when you run the movie in fast motion, suddenly we see all these changes: urbanization and changes in forest management, areas where agricultural irrigation suddenly goes into desert environments.”

Watch this video for a Landsat roadtrip through time.

You’ll learn about the first game-changing launches in the 1970s, the advent of natural color composite images in the 1980s, the increased global coverage in the 1990s, the move to free and open data archives in the 2000s, the modern era of Landsat observations in the 2010s, and now, the launch of Landsat 9 in 2021.

And follow us here and on Twitter @NASAExpeditions this week as we count down to Landsat 9’s launch!

NASA Sends Robots to Study Climate Change in the Arctic

By Emily Fischer, NASA’s Earth Science News Team /GREENBELT, MARYLAND/

On July 7, 2021, NASA sent two robotic explorers to the Arctic to collect sea surface temperature data and improve estimates of ocean temperatures in that region. Pairing up with Saildrone, a designer and manufacturer of non-crewed surface vehicles or USVs, researchers hope to use the results to better understand the impacts of climate change in the Arctic.

Two saildrones awaiting deployment.
Two saildrones awaiting deployment from Dutch Harbor, AK. Credit: Courtesy of Saildrone

“The Arctic is one of those regions that’s being very rapidly impacted by climate change,” said principal investigator Chelle Gentemann, a senior scientist at Farallon Institute in Petaluma, California. “We’re all connected, so what happens in Siberia is going to affect what happens in California. And one of the keys to understanding and mitigating climate change is understanding what’s going on in the Arctic, how fast it’s changing, and how it’s going to affect future weather.”

Acting like Earth’s refrigerator, Arctic climate and weather interact with the rest of the world. Over the past 30 years, the Arctic has warmed about twice as fast as the rest of the Earth. This type of warming can influence sea level rise, global ocean currents, and natural hazards like hurricanes. Researchers in the Arctic are investigating recent and past changes and how they influence other parts of the planet.

Springtime sea ice off of the coast of the Svalbard archipelago. Filmed during the 2017 Operation IceBridge Arctic campaign. Credit: NASA

The Arctic is challenging to study because of its frigid tundra and sea ice dynamics. For years, climate researchers have relied on satellite remote sensing to measure key ocean properties, including ocean salinity, ocean temperature and air-sea interactions (for example, hurricanes). Satellite measurements are validated by collecting field data using buoys and research vessels. Yet in the Arctic, buoys are often destroyed by shifting ice and research vessels are expensive to operate.

“The problem is that almost all of our buoys are located along the coasts of the United States, Europe, near India and Asia and along the tropics. We aren’t able to deploy and maintain buoys in the Arctic,” Gentemann said. “We have to rely on satellite data to understand Arctic ocean temperatures and how they’re changing with climate change.”

Saildrone USVs, are autonomous sailboat-like vehicles powered by green technology; they are propelled by wind and use solar-powered sensors. These autonomous vehicles can be steered from computers hundreds of miles away, allowing them to access severe ocean environments, like the centers of hurricanes and shifting packs of sea ice in the Arctic. They provide a resilient and affordable means to validate satellite data and develop and improve algorithms that model changing temperatures.

The 2021 NASA Arctic Cruise is ongoing; the Saildrone USVs passed through the Bering Strait and are headed into the Chukchi Sea. In previous Saildrone missions, NASA researchers found close correlation between satellite remote sensing measurements of sea surface salinity and data collected by Saildrone.

The path taken by the saildrones during the first 2.5 months of the mission, from June 5 to August 30, 2021. Credit: Courtesy of Saildrone

“We have confidence in satellite information because we are also seeing similar things in the on-site measurements collected by Saildrone. This is encouraging. This tells you that we can use the satellite data to monitor what’s happening over these long periods of time,” said Jorge Vazquez, a scientist for NASA’s Physical Oceanography Distributed Active Archive Center, or PO.DAAC. PO.DAAC is one of several NASA Distributed Active Archive Centers, which process, archive and distribute data collected from NASA projects.

The primary focus of the 2021 NASA Arctic Cruise is to validate sea surface temperature data from satellites, but scientists have also collected information on air-sea interactions, ocean stratification (different layers of water), ocean currents, sea surface salinity and the marginal ice zone (an area where ice forms seasonally and varies over an area) to answer other scientific questions.

The 2021 NASA Arctic Cruise is part the Multi-Sensor Improved Sea Surface Temperature project, or MISST. This is an international and inter-agency collaboration aimed at improving weather and climate research and prediction by providing better-quality ocean temperature measurements from satellites. NASA satellites aid in this effort, and projects like the 2021 NASA Arctic Cruise validate NASA satellite measurements to further MISST’s mission.

“What we’re finding is that we live on a planet where you have to have a multidisciplinary and international approach to understand how this planet works. It’s a team effort,” Vazquez said.

A fjord in western Greenland, filmed during the 2019 Operation IceBridge Arctic campaign. Credit: NASA

NASA has an open data policy, and the 2021 NASA Arctic Cruise takes this one step further. The project has an open invitation for other researchers from around the world to be an observer on the mission, have access to near-real time data and participate in the conversation about the mission and science objectives. The Saildrone Arctic deployments are available through the PO.DAAC at http://podaac.jpl.nasa.gov.

Storm (outflow) chasing high up in the stratosphere

Photo of the ER-2 Aircraft taking off.
ER-2 takeoff on 16 July 2021 for DCOTSS Research Flight 01. Photo credit: Dan Chirica

By Rei Ueyama, NASA Ames Research Center /SALINA, KANSAS/

It’s 3 a.m. in Salina, Kansas. The moon is out. Crickets are chirping on this balmy summer night. The light above the door to the hangar softly illuminates the sign that reads “DCOTSS.” Most teammates are just waking up.  I unlock the door and walk in to be the first to start this long but exciting day full of new discoveries. It’s yet another start of a typical day of a forecaster for the NASA Dynamics and Chemistry of the Summer Stratosphere (DCOTSS) field campaign.

Picture of the DCOTTS sign on the exterior of the team's hangar workspace
A picture of the door to the hangar taken by me (Rei Ueyama) on the morning of DCOTSS Research Flight 04 on 26 July 2021.

About 50 of us have gathered here (and 20 more to arrive later) in the middle of the continental United States in search of strong convective storms that penetrate high into the atmosphere. These so-called overshooting storms carry water and pollutants from the boundary layer and troposphere (where we live) into the atmospheric layer above us called the stratosphere. Small turrets at the top of these strong storms overshoot into the stratosphere, and hence its name “overshoots”.

The stratosphere is a much different environment than the troposphere.  For one, it is extremely dry. It also has many molecules of ozone that make up the ozone layer which protects us from harmful ultraviolet rays. Various materials pumped up from the troposphere into the stratosphere by these overshooting storms may alter the chemistry and composition of the stratosphere, which could ultimately affect Earth’s climate quite significantly.  So we’re here to find out exactly how and to what extent these strong convective storms influence our climate.

ER-2 Pilot in a pressurized suit steps up a mobile stair to the aircraft.
ER-2 pilot (Greg “Coach” Nelson) stepping into the aircraft for DCOTSS Research Flight 01 on 16 July 2021. Photo credit: Dan Chirica

Our vehicle for exploration is NASA’s ER-2 high-altitude research aircraft.  The ER-2 is a single-occupant, lightweight airplane with a long (31.5 meter) wingspan that flies gracefully at altitudes up to 70,000 feet in the stratosphere, which is about twice the altitude of commercial airplanes. Air is so thin at those high altitudes that the pilot must wear a pressurized spacesuit in case of a loss of cabin pressure. Inside the nose, body and pods under each wing is like a jigsaw puzzle of many scientific instruments. Each instrument measures specifics gases in the atmosphere which are later analyzed to hopefully tell us a story about how convective storms affect the stratosphere.

Researchers gathered in a room with tables to plan the flight.
A picture of forecasting and flight planning meeting on the morning of 15 July 2021. I am sitting in the front left corner (my back facing the camera), leading the meeting. Photo credit: Dan Chirica

My role in DCOTSS is to lead a group of forecasters and flight planners to provide our best assessment of where the outflow plumes from overshooting storms may be located on the day of a science flight and then design a flight plan to sample those plumes. This is no easy feat as these plumes of overshooting material are often tenuous and sparse such that our effort often feels like a search for a diamond in a haystack.

As we rub our just-awoken eyes and scrutinize the early morning images of overshooting plume forecasts from satellite and radar-based models, the instrument scientists begin to arrive at the hangar to prepare their instruments for a 6 to 7 hour flight. The flight plan is tweaked, the pilot is briefed, and we are ready to go.

Clouds under a blue sky in the stratosphere, taken from the window of the ER-2
A picture of non-overshooting convective storms reaching up to 45 kft taken by the pilot (Gary “Thor” Toroni) on DCOTSS Research Flight 02 on 20 July 2021. Photo credit: Gary “Thor” Toroni

Watching the pilot navigate the ER-2 just as we had planned is very humbling and satisfying. But at the same time, our nerves are running high as the measurements from the instruments start to trickle in from the aircraft to the mission operation center on the ground. How good was our plume forecast?  Do we see any indication in the measurements that the ER-2 had actually flown through a convective plume? On many occasions, it’s too early to tell. The diamond usually only shines through after the flight has been completed and after a thorough analysis of the collective measurements. Yet we are glued to our computer screens, holding our breath as we look for any signs of a convective plume in the real-time measurements.

Our job is mostly done for today, but there is no reprieve. We now look into the future to plan our next science flight. Time to hunt for another overshooting storm!

 

 

Roaming the Depths: The Role of Autonomous Assets in the EXPORTS Campaign

By Shawnee Traylor, PhD student in the joint Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution program in Chemical Oceanography / NORTHERN ATLANTIC OCEAN /

Satellites have undoubtedly opened up new ways for scientists to study the ocean, giving us global coverage of the surface of the ocean without ever having to step foot on a ship. But how can we learn what lies beneath the surface?

The classic way oceanographers study the ocean is, of course, going there. But putting together a cruise is no easy feat. They take years of planning, preparation, and enormous teams of scientists, mariners, and logistics personnel to bring to fruition. Once aboard, teams must adapt to perform delicate tasks under the demanding conditions of working at sea. Some cruises (such as this one!) run into storm after storm, which limits the ability to conduct our ship-based scientific missions.

One of the seagliders deployed on DY130, the cruise immediately prior to ours, which helped us scout features ahead of the ship and make informed decisions about where to sample.
One of the seagliders deployed on DY130, the cruise immediately prior to ours, which helped us scout features ahead of the ship and make informed decisions about where to sample. Credit: Filipa Carvalho, National Oceanography Centre

The difficulty of science at sea has been one driving factor in the development of autonomous platforms for use in scientific research. The wide range of platforms allow us to study places and timescales that are inaccessible to ships–such as the physics of water under ice sheets, or the interannual variability of biogeochemical cycles now and into the future.

The EXPORTS campaign utilizes a range of autonomous assets to collect data over time and space, and at different depths. Gliders silently soar through the water to waypoints provided by pilots on land, collecting measurements down to 3,281 feet (1000 meters) several times a day. Autonomous floats such as the Biogeochemical Argo float shown in the photo below remain in the ocean for up to five years, gathering critical data as they drift in the ocean’s currents. Drifters deployed at the surface give insight to the upper ocean currents. Like satellite imagery, these assets allow us to make informed decisions while at sea by scouting out the biology, chemistry, and physics of a region without having to move the ship. The assets that remain in the water after the cruise continue our study and give further context to our ship-based measurements.

Shawnee with a BioArgo float on the back deck, immediately prior to deployment. Credit: Leah Johnson, Brown University
Shawnee with a BioArgo float on the back deck, immediately prior to deployment. Credit: Leah Johnson, Brown University

Each type of platform carries a unique sensor package, though most of them measure temperature, salinity, and depth. The floats and gliders utilized in the EXPORTS cruise also include a suite of biogeochemical sensors that measure oxygen, bio-optics, and nitrate. The bio-optical package measures things like chlorophyll, a proxy for the abundance of phytoplankton, and backscatter, which is used to study particles in the water that may be important to carbon export.

On this cruise, I was tasked with deploying two BiogeochemicalArgo floats, to both inform our mission while at sea and enable us to continue our study of the region after we return home. Similar to gliders, these floats move through the water column by finely tuning their buoyancy by moving mineral oil between internal and external bladders. When it is time to take measurements, they sink down to 6,561 feet (2,000 meters) and begin gathering data on their way to the surface, constructing a profile of the water’s properties. Once at the surface, they transmit this data back to servers on land via satellite, who process and send it back to the team on the ship.

Two BioArgo floats running through post-shipment checks on the deck of the RRS Discovery. Credit: Shawnee Traylor, MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Two BioArgo floats running through post-shipment checks on the deck of the RRS Discovery. Credit: Shawnee Traylor, MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

We deployed the floats in the first few days of the cruise, transiting over the first drop point at 4:30 AM. The brisk early morning air stole any lasting grogginess from my eyes as I grabbed a drill and opened their wooden crates. I hooked two alligator clips onto the head of the float and successfully made communication, waking it from its slumber. After a few final pre-deployment checks, it was the moment of truth. My fingers hovered above the keyboard, ripe with the responsibility of ensuring a successful deployment. One final keystroke activated the float, and it was time to release it into the vast black waves. How I wished for a blinking light, the purr of a motor, or any sign of life. But it stood silent. I had to trust that once we released it overboard, it would rise once again.

Imaging the Ocean

By Laetitia Drago, PhD student at Sorbonne Université / NORTHERN ATLANTIC OCEAN /

As a child, I used to spend my summers on the rocks near the water in Villefranche-sur-mer, France, my hands busy with a bucket and a small net. I was fascinated by the organisms surrounding me both on the rocks and in the water. Little did I know that I would have the chance to explore the open ocean with a bigger hand net, and multiple imaging instruments on a 231 foot (70.5 meter) long vessel.

Plankton net with 20 meter mesh size on the deck of the Sarmiento de Gamboa ship.
Plankton net with 20 meter mesh size on the deck of the Sarmiento de Gamboa ship (left) and the ship itself (right). Credit: Laetitia Drago

I started my PhD in October at IMEV in Villefranche-sur-mer, France, on the impact of zooplankton on the biological carbon pump through an in-situ imaging approach. It’s in this context that I had the privilege to join this impressive EXPORTS campaign onboard the Sarmiento de Gamboa research vessel. This vessel’s scientific team consisted mostly of people coming from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, researching the ocean twilight zone, the layer of water between 656 and 3,280 feet (200 and 1,000 meters) below the surface of the global ocean. It is a very important layer of the ocean for the biological carbon pump, the process which is at the core of my PhD.

 The biological carbon pump moves carbon from the surface to the intermediate and deep oceans. This process starts at the surface of the water where small plantlike organisms called phytoplankton do photosynthesis, the process of using light to transform carbon dioxide into organic matter. This phytoplankton is then eaten by zooplankton, which transfer the carbon from the surface to the intermediate and deep oceans through multiple processes such as producing fecal pellets and daily migration up and down throughout the ocean. These organisms constitute an important source of food for fish, making them an important link in the food webs supporting fisheries all around the world.

 To look more closely at the ocean twilight zone, I brought imaging instruments to observe which organisms live in this layer. These included Underwater Vision Profilers (UVP). These instruments were developed in my lab in order to study large particles and zooplankton up to nearly 20,000 feet (6000 meters) in depth! The instrument counts and measures particles greater than 0.1 millimeters and saves images of the ones greater than 0.6 millimeters because those are the ones with a clear enough resolution to determine which taxonomic group we’re looking at. To do that, it uses a camera and a dedicated red light flashing system. On the image of the UVP6 you can see that there is a light. It can flash every few  seconds depending on how you program the instrument. For the UVP6 for example, it was programmed to flash once every two seconds. This way, it illuminated a volume of water every two seconds below the camera, which can then take a picture of the illuminated field of view.

The UVP5 has already performed more than 10,000 profiles in the ocean throughout the 10 years since its creation. It has been used in all the oceans fixed on CTD rosettes like the one used during this cruise. CTD rosettes are submerged in the ocean to measure temperature, depth and salinity in the ocean.

Deployment of the CTD frame containing the UVP5 and Niskin bottles. Credit: Laetitia Drago
Deployment of the CTD frame containing the UVP5 and Niskin bottles. Credit: Laetitia Drago

I also used two UVP6s, a more versatile, small and powerful version of the instrument. Each one was in a cage, fixed to a drifting line which was deployed at sea. We hope that the images taken by these two instruments will help improve our knowledge of the biological carbon pump.

UVP6 in its cage (left) and during the deployment (right). Credit: Laetitia Drago
UVP6 in its cage (left) and during the deployment (right). Credit: Laetitia Drago

I also brought with me a Planktoscope. This microscope platform was designed at Stanford University by Plankton Planet and the Prakash Lab in the context of frugal science, which aims to bring science to the maximum number of people. It can be customized, redesigned and mounted aboard a ship by anyone in the world at a very affordable price!

Using a net or the water from the Niskin bottles (as seen in the second picture), I imaged the organisms living in the water and watched as the composition of organisms changed between the different parts of the ocean that we sampled.

Planktoscope imaging a sample collected with the net. Credit: Marley Parker and Laetitia Drago
Planktoscope imaging a sample collected with the net. Credit: Marley Parker and Laetitia Drago

Here a few images acquired by these instruments:

From left to right: Copepod (UVP6), Fish (UVP6), Shrimp (UVP5), Radiolarian (UVP5), Copepod nauplii (Planktoscope), Thalassionema diatom chain (Planktoscope). Credits: Laetitia Drago
From left to right: Copepod (UVP6), Fish (UVP6), Shrimp (UVP5), Radiolarian (UVP5), Copepod nauplii (Planktoscope), Thalassionema diatom chain (Planktoscope). Credits: Laetitia Drago

As you might know, this journey was not an easy one. Three storms came our way during our mission at the PAP site. Nevertheless, we managed to do 11 profiles with the UVP5 and get six and a half days of images from each UVP6 with one image every two seconds. This amounts to around 148,500 vignettes for the UVP5, 323,000 vignettes for the UVP6 and 79,200 vignettes for the Planktoscope. 

The storms were unfortunate for our life on board and the conditions which stopped us from sampling during half of our presence at the PAP site. However, it was fortunate in the sense that we have a unique dataset containing data before the first storm as well as data between the three storms. This will hopefully give us an idea on the potential impacts that one or multiple storms can have on zooplankton and particle flux.

Our hard work was of course rewarded by the data acquired but also by a wonderful sunrise at the end of a very long last night of sampling followed by a 15 minute visit from a group of common dolphins on our way back to Vigo.

Sunrise on the Sarmiento de Gamboa.Credit: Laetitia Drago
Sunrise on the Sarmiento de Gamboa.Credit: Laetitia Drago
Common dolphins. Credit: Laetitia Drago
Common dolphins. Credit: Laetitia Drago

Finally, I want to deeply thank the team in Villefranche-sur-mer, France, who trusted me with handling the instruments and supported me from afar as well as the very motivated team of scientists and the ship’s crew support who helped us acquire very important data which will hopefully help us to understand a little bit more the carbon processes at hand in the ocean twilight zone.