Monthly Archives: October 2011

NPP Launches: Put on Your Calibration and Validation Shoes

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The NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP)
, NASA’s newest Earth-observing satellite, roared into space on October 28th on a mission to improve understanding of how Earth’s climate (and weather) works by extending a variety of environmental data records established by an earlier generation of satellites.

There’s been plenty of good coverage of the hubbub and the careful engineering that goes into every NASA launch but less that gets into the nitty-gritty of the new science data that the satellite will provide.

What exactly will the mission’s science team do once NPP starts to produce data? What sorts of science issues will NPP-funded researchers tackle?

The answers to such questions are tucked away in a hard-to-find document (pdf) in the science section of NPP’s website. Though technical and filled with acronyms and jargon, it’s well worth reading if you want to understand what the NPP science team will be focused on in the coming months.

My four sentence summary: Teams of researchers charged with using NPP to monitor a whole slew of environmental phenomena (think, for example, atmospheric ozone levels, sea surface temperatures, cloud properties, fire activity, vegetation cover, ocean color, land surface temperatures, aerosol particles, snow cover, the planet’s albedo, and air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide) will be doing everything they possibly can to make sure the data NPP’s instruments provide can be merged seamlessly with measurements taken by an earlier generation of satellites. Sounds easy enough, I know. It’s not. Lots and lots of careful calibration and validation work is required because four of NPP’s instruments are significantly different than the instruments that preceded them.

To the NPP scientists about to embark on the task: Bon Voyage!

Text by Adam Voiland.  Launch #1 video published originally on Geeked on Goddard. Launch imagery available in the NPP press kit. Launch video #2 published originally by NASA Television’s YouTube Channel

What on Earth is That? #1

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(Please post your guesses and your name in the comments, and we’ll give the answer next week…)

Here at What on Earth, we’re constantly stumbling across interesting photos, videos, and audio clips from NASA’s exploration of our planet (be it from space, the field, or the lab.) Whether it’s a satellite montage captured from thousands of miles up, the roar of our B-200 research aircraft, or a microscopic view of a cloud droplet, there’s literally always something strange and wonderful passing across our desks.

To have a little fun (and spare all that fascinating stuff from the circular file), we’re going to post snippets of it every now and then, usually on Fridays. What we post will change, but the question to you all will always be the same: “What on Earth is that?

Our only hints:

  • Our picks will always be related to Earth science in one way or another, and…
  •  It will have some relation to what we do at NASA.

We’ll give you a week to post your guesses, and we’ll post the answer the following Friday.


Updated 7/16/2010

So, what on Earth was that? We received a barrage of thoughtful—and creative—responses that ranged from pollen, to DNA, to carbon nanodiamonds embedded in Antarctica ice. Ant-related answers were surprisingly common. (Nope, it isn’t an ant eating salt, spitting up acid, or laying eggs.) It is, drum roll please, a microscopic view of soot from wildfire smoke in Africa. Congratulations to posters MicroMacro (comment 121), Arbeiterkind (comment 124), Mike (comment 125), Michael & Marion Dreyer (comment 130), and Rosemary Millham (comment 141), who were correct or on the right track. A more complete description of the aerosols from this particular fire, including the image above, was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research (account required).

Here are a few more details to impress your pals: Bits of soot (a type of aerosol particle) tend to clump together into the chain-like structures visible above. Wildfires, diesel trucks, factories—anything that partially burns the carbon locked away in fossil fuels and organic materials can produce soot and release it into the air. Soot makes doctors nervous as it can cause health problems when it lodges in our lungs and works its way into our bloodstream. And climatologists are wary of the particles as well because they absorb the sun’s energy and hasten global warming and climate change by heating the atmosphere directly or coating the surface of glaciers. In recent years, black carbon is an active area of research in climate science, and it’s a target of study for a number of NASA’s Earth science projects, including the forthcoming Glory satellite

Image(left) from Peter Buseck, Arizona State University. Image(right) from Jim Ross, NASADryden Flight Research Center.

–Adam Voiland, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

NASA Scientist Wins Climate Communication Prize

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Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist based at NASA’s GoddardInstitute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City, has received the inauguralClimate Communications Prize from the American Geophysical Union, the largestassociation of Earth and planetary scientists in the world. The $25,000 prizewill be awarded at the group’s fall meeting in San Francisco thisDecember.  

Despite the rancor that often surrounds public discussions ofclimate change science, Schmidt has become one of NASA’s most valued andrelentless scientific communicators. He is regularly quoted by leadingnewspaper and magazine journalists, frequently offers his time and expertise atpublic events, and has appeared on numerous television programs. In his sparetime, he write for the widely read blog RealClimate and has published abook about climate change.

Here are a few links to interviews we’ve done with Schmidt in the past about communicating climate science and the surface temperature record. Also, take a look at these recent video interviews produced by Columbia and NASA and a few of Schmidt’s memorable appearances on CNN, the Daily Show, Nova, and Martha Steward (see 9:50). Congratulations, Gavin. And thank you. 

Text by Adam Voiland.

See This Year's Arctic Sea Ice Minimum

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The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) has tentatively announced that Arctic sea ice has reached its minimum extent for the year. From the NSIDC release:

The blanket of sea ice that floats on the Arctic Ocean appears to have reached its lowest extent for the year. Arctic sea ice extent fell to 4.33 million square kilometers (1.67 million square miles) on September 9, 2011. This year’s minimum was the second lowest in the satellite record, which started in 1979. The lowest extent was recorded in 2007.Over the last thirty years, ice extent, a two-dimensional measure of the ice cover on the Arctic Ocean, has declined in all months, with a more pronounced drop in summer. Scientists attribute this decline in large part to climate change. Arctic sea ice melts and refreezes in an annual cycle, reaching its lowest point in late summer, and its highest point in late winter.

Meanwhile, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center has posted HD video of the decline from the near maximum ice extent in early spring of 2011 through Sept. 9, 2011. The visualization (above) is based on data collected by Aqua’s AMSR-E instrument. From Goddard’s Flickr caption:

Sea ice goes through this shrink-and-swellrhythm every year, but since consistent satellite observations began in1979, both the annual minimum at the end of summer and the annualmaximum at the end of winter continue to decline in area and thickness.Consistent with rising temperatures globally and specifically in theArctic, climate scientists are concerned with this trend both as anindicator of climate change and as a feedback mechanism. As the white,highly reflective ice disappears, darker ocean waters appear. Thisdarker surface absorbs more solar radiation and acts as a positivefeedback to the warming that is already occurring and causing the changein the first place.

On Sept. 20th, NASA’s Cryosphere Program Manager, Tom Wagner, shared his take on Arctic sea ice with television audiences across the country.

Text by Adam Voiland. Visualization by the Scientific Visualization Studio based at Goddard Space Flight Center.