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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."

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Aug 17, 2021 - Science

Saturn's wavy rings

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SScI

Saturn's wiggles create waves in the planet's iconic rings, according to a new study.

Why it matters: The findings could help scientists learn more about the inner workings of Saturn and other worlds like it out there in the galaxy.

The hard math behind America's labor shortage

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Congressional Budget Office; Chart: Axios Visuals

Yes, the pandemic has created unusual temporary labor market dynamics. But in the bigger picture, the 2010s were a golden age for companies seeking cheap labor. The 2020s are not.

The big picture: In the 2010s, the massive millennial generation was entering the workforce, the massive baby bo0m generation was still hard at work, and there was a multi-year hangover from the deep recession caused by the global financial crisis.

Advocates fret Roe v. Wade's 49th anniversary could be its last

Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Women's March Inc

As Saturday marks the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's landmark decision that legalized abortion access in the U.S., advocates warn the ruling is "more at risk now than ever."

The big picture: The Supreme Court in December heard a challenge to a Mississippi 15-week abortion ban that could throw Roe's survival into question, or at least narrow its scope.

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