May 25, 2021 - Energy & Environment

NASA chief touts new Earth-observing satellites for climate

Satellite view of a powerful hurricane with the eye at its center.

NASA's Terra satellite captured this thermal imaging view of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Credit: NASA.

The White House is providing fresh details of a major satellite program that administration officials call poised to reveal vital information about climate change and extreme weather events.

Why it matters: Known as the "Earth System Observatory," the program consists of at least five satellites to be launched through 2029 that will enhance, or in some cases revolutionize, the capabilities of the space agency's existing fleet of Earth-observing satellites.

Details: In an interview with Axios on Monday, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the upcoming satellite constellation will look at everything from aerosols — tiny particles in the atmosphere that are a major source of uncertainty in climate models — to sea level rise.

  • He said these missions will observe the changes in the planet's forests and ice sheets, as well as shifts in water resources and geological phenomena.
  • “All of these will create a 3D view of our Earth from the atmosphere to the bedrock," Nelson said.

Yes, but: Some of these satellites, including a radar imaging mission known as NISAR, which can measure shifts in Earth’s surface down to a resolution of a half-inch, have been in the works for some time.

  • That joint U.S.-India mission is set to launch next year.
  • Others, however, are still on the drawing board, and NASA is taking inspiration from a 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences.

State of play: Nelson said the program's prominent inclusion in a White House's hurricane preparedness fact sheet on Monday, along with added funding for FEMA, indicates the administration’s support for it.

  • "They are the ones that announced the Earth System Observatory," Nelson said when asked about White House buy-in for what would be an expensive, multi-year program.
  • "Now it didn't start today, because you can't build a sophisticated spacecraft that you're gonna launch in a year and a half... that’s already underway and is being funded," he said of the NISAR spacecraft.

The big picture: Nelson comes to the NASA job having served in both houses of Congress and, while a lawmaker, flying aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986. While orbiting the globe, he said he felt what astronauts call the "overview effect," a newly deepened appreciation for the uniqueness of Earth and its fragility.

  • "For example, coming across Brazil I could see with the naked eye, the color differential in the upper Amazon region, which is where they were destroying the rainforest — and then I could look in the same window to the east, and see all of the additional silt that was coming out of the Amazon into the Atlantic," Nelson said.
  • "I became more of an environmentalist when I flew in space."

What to watch: As NASA administrator, Nelson is in a science communication, rather than policy-making role. But he shares President Biden's sense of urgency on climate change.

  • “Now I'm in a position to try to help my friend, who is the President, and what he is trying to do, is to shape the reality of what is happening to our planet into the focus of people's minds, that the Earth is in fact heating up, and we'd better get about the business of trying to do something about it," he said.
  • "Otherwise, you will continue to have more ferocious storms, and, and they will be larger."
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