The three missions will allow scientists to measure water, wind and carbon dioxide with greater precision, and to improve the accuracy of weather forecasts and climate change projections.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that understanding the ramifications of rising temperatures on Earth is an important priority for the space agency, which is most famous for studying outer space. Research on climate change "will inevitably be part of any agency in the federal government," he said during a visit to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Tuesday.
While visiting the NASA lab in La Canada Flintridge, Bolden donned a white gown, cap, booties and gloves and entered a cleanroom where engineers were assembling instruments for two of the missions. (You can see his spiffy get-up in the photo gallery above.)
RapidScat will be the first to launch, in April 2014. When it is mounted to the International Space Station, it will measure the speed and direction of winds near the ocean surface to improve storm and hurricane tracking. Its readings will also help scientists understand how the ocean and atmosphere interact to influence climate. (Roughly half of RapidScat's parts are from QuickScat, a satellite that collected similar information but stopped working in 2009.)
The Soil Moisture Active Passive, or SMAP, satellite will map the moisture levels of soil, which affects the formation of clouds and rainfall. SMAP will also measure changes in the length of the growing season, an indication of how much carbon plants absorb from the atmosphere. The spacecraft is scheduled to launch in October 2014.
Bolden, escorted by JPL director Charles Elachi, focused his questions on mission logistics. He drew the instrument parts in the air as he asked, for example, whether meteorites or other obstructions will affect SMAP's measurements. (The answer: SMAP will stop taking measurements until after such objects pass its radar range.)
Bolden's eyes lit up as he examined RapidScat's hardware. "This is the most exciting [mission] to me because it finally recognizes the ability to marry space exploration and human space travel as a true science platform," said the former astronaut, who flew aboard the space shuttles Columbia, Discovery and Atlantis.
JPL’s third Earth-observing mission is the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, a satellite that will map carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. With a launch date of July 2014, it is undergoing final assembly and testing by
SMAP project system engineer Shawn Goodman said he is already looking forward to NASA's Year of Earth missions.
"We're the caretakers of this planet," he said. "I can't imagine anything more important for us to understand."
Dragana Perkovic-Martin, RapidScat's radar performance engineer, agreed that many people, not just scientists, could benefit from the Earth observation data.
"We as a population get affected by everything that we observe," she said. "This is about us trying to help the population and where they really live."
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