JPL missions to study climate change, weather on Earth

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is known for its exploration of space, but the La Cañada Flintridge facility is starting to focus its gaze back to Earth.

Three new missions scheduled to launch in 2014 will examine soil moisture, wind, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The data obtained from the orbiters sent on these missions can be used by farmers, meteorologists and others in understanding how the planet works, scientists said.

PHOTOS: NASA Administrator Charles Bolden visits JPL

“Last year was the year of Mars,” said JPL Director Charles Elachi on Tuesday. “This is the year of Earth science.”

Elachi and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden donned white coveralls and head coverings Tuesday during a tour of a chamber in JPL's spacecraft assembly facility, also known as the “clean room,” where instruments for the missions are currently being assembled and tested.

The Carbon Observatory-2 satellite was absent from the test facility, but talk of the upcoming mission led to discussions about how the agency will address the changing global climate.

“Climate change research is inevitably going to be a part of what almost every agency at the federal government that has anything to do with the environment [does],” said Bolden. “This is, for me, for a former military person, a national security issue.”

The satellite will record thousands of carbon dioxide measurements around the world every day. Scientists say it's unknown exactly how CO2 moves in and out of oceans and land masses. They hope this mission will shed some light on the carbon dioxide cycle.

“The carbon dioxide that's growing in the atmosphere is the principal driver of climate change, so if we can't understand this, we're not going to understand climate change,” said Annmarie Eldering, JPL's deputy project scientist for the mission. “We need to have better information to make better decisions about what we do about [carbon dioxide] and how much we're going to emit in the future.”

The two-year mission launches on July 1, 2014.

RapidScat, launching in April, is an orbiter that will be mounted on the International Space Station. The instrument replaces a former satellite, QuikScat, that monitored wind on the surface of Earth's oceans.

The new mission will use radar to help in the forecasting of flash floods, hurricanes and tropical storms.

“The instrument is sensitive to the roughness in the ocean,” said JPL engineer Dragana Perkovic-Martin. “It is sensitive to the little, tiny waves … those waves are actually dependent on the wind blowing.”

The radar can scope out the speed and direction of the wind on those tiny waves, sending data back to JPL that could help with public weather advisories and forecasting, she said.

JPL will use data from another mission, Soil Moisture Active-Passive, to create moisture maps that could be useful to the agriculture industry.

Set to launch in October 2014, the orbiter will produce a new global map of the soil moisture on the surface of the planet every three days.

“Farmers might be able to use this [data] to map out regions that are suffering due to a lack of precipitation,” said Eni Njoku, JPL project scientist for SMAP. “With these measurements of soil moisture, we can predict whether this is going to be a good year for crops or not.”

The mission is also expected to reveal data about weather, said Njoku. “We will be able to predict much better things like floods, droughts, weather and climate events.”

JPL currently manages 11 Earth missions, with at least four planned to launch by 2015.


Follow Tiffany Kelly on Google+ and on Twitter: @LATiffanyKelly.


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