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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

Biden administration to invest $1 billion to prepare states for extreme weather

Biden walks to Marine One on May 22. Photo: Chris Kleponis/CNP/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Biden administration plans to invest $1 billion helping states prepare for extreme weather ahead of the 2021 hurricane season, alongside an initiative to track natural disasters through a new NASA program.

Why it matters: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expects above-average storm activity during the next hurricane season, which would make this the sixth unusually active season in a row.

Updated 29 mins ago - Science

NTSB probes crash that killed 10 in Alabama as storms lash Southeast

A car drives in the rain in Galveston, Texas. Photo: Zeng Jingning/China News Service via Getty Images

The National Transportation Safety Board announced Sunday that it's investigating a fiery multi-vehicle weekend crash in Alabama that killed 10 people, including nine children, as storms swept the Southeast.

The big picture: Saturday's crash on Interstate 65, south of Montgomery, occurred amid a tropical depression that left 13 people dead in Alabama as it triggered flash floods and spawned tornadoes that razed "dozens of homes," per AP.

Laurel Hubbard to become 1st openly trans athlete to compete at Olympics

New Zealand's Laurel Hubbard at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, when she became the first openly transgender athlete to represent NZ. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

The New Zealand Olympic Committee has announced that Laurel Hubbard has been selected for the women's weightlifting team for the Tokyo Games — making her the first openly transgender athlete to compete at the event.

The big picture: Hubbard, 43, is part of a five-member Kiwi weightlifting team and will compete in the women's super heavyweight category. Meanwhile, BMX rider Chelsea Wolfe will become the first openly trans athlete to travel to the Olympics with Team USA, when she arrives in Tokyo as a reserve rider.

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