Monday, September 8, 2014

NASA Launches New Era of Earth Science from Space Station

Image Credit: NASA

The launch of a NASA ocean winds sensor to the International Space Station (ISS) this month inaugurates a new era of Earth observation that will leverage the space station's unique vantage point in space.

Before the end of the decade, six NASA Earth science instruments will be mounted to the station to help scientists study our changing planet.

The first NASA Earth-observing instrument to be mounted on the exterior of the space station will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on the next SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services flight, currently targeted for no earlier than Sept. 19.

Graphic of ISS-RapidScat on ISS
ISS-RapidScat will monitor ocean winds for climate research, weather predictions and hurricane monitoring from the space station.

The second instrument is the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS), a laser instrument that will measure clouds and the location and distribution of airborne particles such as pollution, mineral dust, smoke, and other particulates in the atmosphere.

Graphic of CATS on ISS
CATS will follow ISS-RapidScat on the fifth SpaceX space station resupply flight, targeted for December.

"We're seeing the space station come into its own as an Earth-observing platform," said Julie Robinson, chief scientist for the International Space Station Program at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"It has a different orbit than other Earth remote sensing platforms. It’s closer to Earth, and it sees Earth at different times of day with a different schedule."

"That offers opportunities that complement other Earth-sensing instruments in orbit today."

The space station-based instruments join a fleet of 17 NASA Earth-observing missions currently providing data on the dynamic and complex Earth system.

GPM image of Precipitation
ISS-RapidScat and CATS follow the February launch of the Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory (GPM), a joint mission with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the July launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2), making 2014 one of the busiest periods for new NASA Earth science missions in more than a decade.

Most of the agency’s free-flying, Earth-observing satellites orbit the planet over the poles at altitudes higher than 400 miles in order to gather data from all parts of the planet.

Although the space station does not pass over Earth’s polar regions, its 240-mile high orbit does offer logistical and scientific advantages.

"With the space station we don't have to build a spacecraft to gather new data, it's already there,” said Stephen Volz, associate director of flight programs in the Earth Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“The orbit enables rare, cross-disciplinary observations when the station flies under another sensor on a satellite. Designing instruments for the space station also gives us a chance to do high-risk, high-return instruments in a relatively economical way."

The data provided by ISS-RapidScat will support weather and marine forecasting, including tracking storms and hurricanes.

The station's orbit will allow the instrument to make repeated, regular observations over the same locations at different times of day, providing the first near-global measurements of how winds change throughout the day.

ISS-RapidScat was built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

CATS is a laser remote-sensing instrument, or lidar, that measures clouds and tiny aerosol particles in the atmosphere.

These atmospheric components play a critical part in understanding how human activities such as pollution and fossil fuel burning contribute to climate change.

CATS was built by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

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