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NASA Space Systems Enable Science for Society

Ronald J. Birk, Richard L. Miller, Carlos E. Del Castillo, Timothy L. Miller, and James F. Spann

An effective approach to studying the complex Earth-Sun system is to define it as a set of contributing subsystems. Just as the human body is studied as a complex system of subsystems (e.g., organs, cells, organelles, molecular compounds), the view from space enables Earth to be studied as a set of major subsystems. The atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, biosphere, and heliosphere interact in complex ways as a single, connected, Earth-Sun system. A comprehensive set of observations are required to enable scientists to improve our understanding of this system, and to monitor Earth and the Sun adequately. Spacecraft can acquire observations of the whole Earth-Sun system over time to study variations and trends in its processes.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a legacy of applying science and technology to study Earth from space. Earth-Sun system science is integral to achieving NASA's Vision ('To improve life here, to extend life to there, to find life beyond') and NASA's Mission ('To understand and protect our home planet, to explore the Universe and search for life, to inspire the next generation of explorers . . . as only NASA can'). NASA's goal in Earth science is to observe, understand, and model Earth to discover how it is changing, to better predict change, and to understand the consequences for life on Earth. NASA employs a systems approach to characterize, understand, and predict change in Earth-Sun system processes and to link Earth observations to models that forecast and project these processes.

Figure 1: NASA has identified seven science focus areas that comprise major components of the Earth-Sun system. Click on image to see enlarged.

NASA has identified seven science focus areas that comprise major components of the Earth-Sun system (see Figure 1):

  • Climate Variability and Change
  • Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems
  • Earth Surface and Interior
  • Atmospheric Composition
  • Weather
  • Water and Energy Cycle, and
  • the Sun-Solar System Connection.

Recognizing Earth as a complex dynamic system, NASA and the science community formulated a set of research questions as the basis for developing space systems to make the measurements needed to improve knowledge of the Earth system.

  • How is the global Earth system changing?
  • What are the primary forcings of the Earth system?
  • How does the Earth system respond to natural and human-induced changes?
  • What are the consequences of changes in the Earth system for human civilization?
  • How well can we predict future changes to the Earth system?

These questions serve as the basis for roadmaps for NASA science and technology development with inputs from the Earth science community in academia, government, and the private sector.

These questions and associated roadmaps frame an approach to studying Earth as an integrated system. The processes associated with major Earth components, and their connection to human civilization, are taken in the context that our planet and its immediate space environment (referred to as Geospace) are within a solar system that exists within the universe. At the center of our solar system is the Sun, a magnetically variable star. The Sun both enables and sustains life and produces variable streams of high energy particles, plasmas, and radiation that can harm life and affect technology. The impacts of the Sun's variability on critical technologies are increasing as civilization becomes more dependent on space-based communication (e.g., cell phones, television, and medical technology), energy grids, and satellite infrastructure. Therefore, understanding and predicting the impacts in Geospace due to solar variability and ionospheric forcing from the atmosphere is more important than ever.

Figure 2: NASA has developed and launched 30 spacecraft that are currently carrying nearly 100 research instruments used to study the Earth-Sun System. Click on image to see enlarged.

Observations from space are required to view Earth and the Sun as a whole system and to begin to understand how our planet and star are changing. NASA has developed and deployed 30 research spacecraft with the ability to characterize the evolving state of the Earth-Sun system and to support the research and analysis necessary to provide answers to the set of science questions. Over 3,500 science products are generated from over 100 research instruments onboard these NASA spacecraft. The spacecraft carry multiple instruments to observe different Earth or Sun geophysical and heliophysical parameters. (Figure 2)

Many of the NASA spacecraft missions involve national and international partners. For example, the NASA Terra spacecraft provides global measurements to study the state of the atmosphere, land, and oceans, as well as their interactions and the effects of solar radiation. The spacecraft provides a spaceborne laboratory for five instruments: the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), the Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES) radiometer, the Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere (MOPITT) nadir sounding instrument, the Multi-angle Imaging Spectro-Radiometer (MISR), and the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER). Colleagues in several countries collaborated on the Terra mission. The NASA spacecraft fleet transmits over 3 terabytes of data per day to numerous ground receiving stations worldwide.

The NASA Earth-Sun Science Division Research and Analysis Program uses measurements from the NASA spacecraft instruments to conduct research in pursuit of answers to fundamental science questions defined within the seven science focus areas. The research and analysis is conducted through competed, peer-reviewed projects at NASA centers, Earth-Sun laboratories, government agencies, universities, and private companies.

The NASA Earth-Sun Science Division Applied Sciences Program employs a systems engineering approach to extend the benefits of the results from NASA Earth-Sun system research. Through collaborations with federal agencies and national organizations, NASA evaluates, verifies and validates, and then benchmarks solutions that integrate observations and predictions resulting from NASA research into decision support tools.

Measurements of precipitation from space contribute to multiple models that provide improved accuracy of weather forecast and prediction and the distribution of latent heat energy. These key factors have improved our understanding of the interactions between the sea, air, and land masses that produce changes in global rainfall and climate. The Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) spacecraft, a joint project between the United States and Japan, has provided observations of the vertical distribution of precipitation over the tropics that have improved our modeling of tropical rainfall processes and their influence on global circulation, leading to better predictions of rainfall and its variability at various time scales. Researchers at Florida State University recently discovered that adding TRMM data to their models triples the accuracy of rainfall forecasts over a 12-hour period. Operational weather agencies in the United States and abroad have used TRMM data since 1998. The benefits of operational uses of the space-based precipitation measurements far exceeded initial expectations of the research mission. Following the success of TRMM, NASA and other international partners are collaborating to build a constellation of spacecraft in support of the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission. A major objective of the GPM is to improve climate predictions by providing near-global measurement of precipitation, its distribution, and physical processes and to improve the accuracy of weather and precipitation forecasts through more accurate measurement of rain rates and latent heating.

Figure 3: Forecast produced in May 1997 from the NSIPP/GMAO coupled model forecast system of El Ni–o in December 1997. The variables shown are anomalies for sea-surface temperature (color), sea surface height (texture), and wind stress (arrows). El Ni–o forecasts support agricultural efficiency, aviation, and disaster management applications. Click on image to see enlarged.

Measurements acquired by the research altimeter on the Jason 1 spacecraft, a joint project of NASA and the Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (the French space agency), have been used in unexpected ways. For over a decade, Jason 1 and its predecessor, the Ocean Circulation Topography Experiment (TOPEX)/Poseidon, have provided measurements of ocean surface topography with accuracies of a few centimeters. These measurements have provided key insights into ocean currents and heat storage that have greatly improved scientific understanding of such phenomena as El Nino and La Nina. NASA-supported researchers at Goddard Space Flight Center and at the University of Maryland have developed techniques to use Jason 1 measurements to monitor surface height changes of larger lakes and reservoirs that provide new information about water availability in many key agricultural regions. Since early 2004, Jason 1 measurements have been integrated into the operational decision support system of the Production Estimates and Crop Assessment Division (PECAD) of the Foreign Agricultural Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). PECAD currently monitors about 100 water bodies, many in regions where information was previously scarce or unreliable.

Figure 7: Model of sea surface temperatures: purple indicates cold water upwelling near the coast of Peru in normal conditions. During an El Ni–o the waters off Peru are much warmer. Click on image to see enlarged.

One of NASA's strategic objectives is to transition research products and knowledge to practical applications and operational environments. Numerous possible connections among NASA space-based Earth observatories, Earth-Sun system science models, and decisions support tools could lead to societal benefits. The NASA Applied Sciences Program works to extend the use of the NASA spacecraft observations and the NASA forecast and projection models to maximize the program's social and economic benefits.

Figure 4: The Applied Sciences Program selected 12 application topics of national priority based on prioritization criteria described in the Earth Science Strategy. The program works with organizations that have decision-support tools and policy and management responsibilities associated with the 12 application topics. Click on image to see enlarged.

NASA supports activities that extend these products and results beyond the science and research communities to 12 applications of national priority. For example, in disaster management, NASA works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to benchmark the use of innovative technologies to improve warnings and predictions of hurricanes, tornadoes, and other severe weather events through the NASA/NOAA Joint Center for Satellite Data Assimilation (JCSDA). Improvements in forecasts enable "integrated solutions" that provide decision support that lead to better operation by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In addition, the USDA is working with NASA to improve the accuracy and timeliness of its global crop production forecasts by using spacecraft-acquired measurements.

Figure 5: Volcanic Ash (MODIS image of volcanic plume from Mount Etna, Sicily) - Ash and corrosive gases from volcanoes can cause serious in-flight damage to aircraft engines, posing an immediate safety risk and requiring expensive repairs. Since 1980, at least 15 aircraft along northern Pacific routes and at least 80 aircraft worldwide have been damaged by flying through volcanic ash clouds. Airplane radar systems cannot detect volcanic ash because the particles are very small, and pilots have trouble spotting ash plumes in poor visibility and at night. Click on image to see enlarged.

NASA is committed to exploring innovative strategies to accelerate and expand the use of NASA Earth-Sun research results and products to national and international applications that directly lead to benefits to society in a significant and sustained way. One of NASA's major challenges is to perform a quick, efficient, and comprehensive review of the staggering number of possible combinations of more than a score of spacecraft (enabling over 3,500 science data products) and more than 35 models (with the capacity to output hundreds of predictions) that may be used by a wide range of decision support tools. Systems engineering tools organized into a rapid prototyping capacity enable the community to accelerate the use of research results. A dynamically evolving rapid prototyping laboratory provides access to the tools necessary to quickly evaluate and assess the efficacy of identified NASA research results and technologies for integrated system solutions configurations.

Rapid prototyping capacity enables evaluation of the use of research products, including observations, predictions, and space and information technologies. Capabilities include use of the Metis enterprise architecture tool, observing system simulator experiments, along with the JCSDA and the Short-term Prediction Research and Transition (SPoRT) research to operations laboratories, and the Earth-Sun System Gateway.

Observing system simulator experiments (OSSEs) help assess the potential impact of future instruments by simulating observations as they would be obtained from planned or conceptual systems, such as the GPM. NASA's Project Columbia supercomputer supports the accelerated and integrated use of NASA models by rapidly running model configurations to support ranges of scenarios and by evaluating the sensitivities to observations provided by NASA spacecraft. Project Columbia is a joint project between NASA, Silicon Graphics, and Intel that has increased NASA's current supercomputing capacity dramatically. As one of the world's most powerful production supercomputers, Project Columbia helps process satellite-derived icing severity data continuously, in real-time, and with minimal latency, into products being benchmarked in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and NOAA.

Figure 6: Monitoring changes in the storage of water on the continents - fluctuations of surface and subsurface waters can affect gravity, which in turn can be measured from space. Click on image to see enlarged.

A major effort to expand the use of NASA products is to facilitate the distribution of geoscience data and access to Earth-Sun models through an Earth-Sun System Gateway (ESG). The ESG is a Web portal to information about Earth from NASA and other sources. To provide an easy-to-use and robust user interface, the ESG is being built using specifications and standards developed by the OpenGIS Consortium and by the Global Spatial Data Infrastructure Association.

NASA and NOAA have collaborated for over 40 years to transition research instruments from NASA spacecraft to NOAA operational spacecraft to improve monitoring and predicting of Earth's weather. NASA and NOAA are now working on a robust partnership to systematically transition a wider range of NASA Earth-Sun System research results to be adopted or adapted for NOAA operations. There is already interest in expanding the process to transition research to other federal agencies in coordination with the U.S. Group for Earth Observations.

The awe-inspiring view of Earth from Apollo 8 forever forged the concept that our planet is a single system composed of interconnected components: atmosphere, continents, and aquatic systems. The vantage point of space clearly provides an observational perspective that can dramatically increase our understanding and knowledge of the Earth system. Using this perspective, NASA has established a coordinated system of spacecraft and instruments that enables research to understand the complex Earth system, while also providing results and products that lead to innovative solutions to directly support national applications and decision-making processes that benefit society.

NASA Funding Opportunities to Contribute to Science for Society

Figure 8: With partner organizations, NASA works to extend the use of the NASA spacecraft observations and the NASA forecast and projection models to maximize the programÕs social and economic benefits through a partnerÕs decision support tool. Click on image to see enlarged.

A NASA Research Announcement (NRA) titled Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) - 2005 has been released that solicits basic and applied research in support of the Science Mission Directorate. This NRA covers all aspects of basic and applied supporting research and technology in space and Earth sciences. The NRA and supporting documents can be found here.

Additional articles on the Applied Sciences Program:

About the Authors

Mr. Ronald J. Birk is the Program Director of the Applied Sciences Program in the Earth-Sun System Division of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA.

Dr. Richard L. Miller is Chief Scientist of the Applied Sciences Directorate at NASA's Stennis Space Center. His main area of expertise is the use of remote sensing for coastal aquatic research and applications. He can be reached at [email protected]

Dr. Carlos E. Del Castillo is a research scientist in the Applied Sciences Directorate at NASA's Stennis Space Center. He uses remote sensing to study carbon cycling in river-dominated coastal environments.

Dr. Timothy L. Miller is the Deputy Chief of the Earth and Planetary Science Branch at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. His research interests include atmospheric dynamics and issues related to climate and other environmental change.

Dr. James Spann is the Deputy Chief of the Space Science Branch at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Alabama. His areas of expertise include auroral imaging in the far-ultraviolet.

NASA Article Series

The following articles were originally published in Earth Observation Magazine in the issues indicated below. The first article, "NASA Space Systems Enable Science for Society," introduces the series.

    Originally published in the May 2005 issue of Earth Observation Magazine

  1. NASA Space Systems Enable Science for Society
    Ronald J. Birk, Richard L. Miller, Carlos E. Del Castillo, Timothy L. Miller, James F. Spann
  2. Enterprise Architecture for NASA's Earth-Sun Science Activities
    Leonard Brownlow, James Martin
  3. Originally published in the June 2005 issue of Earth Observation Magazine

  4. NASA's Contributions to Carbon Management: Using Carbon Cycle Science to Inform Decisions
    Edwin Sheffner
  5. Extending The Results Of NASA Research For Homeland Security
    Stephen Ambrose, Dr. Bruce Davis
  6. Originally published in the July 2005 issue of Earth Observation Magazine

  7. Air Quality Management Through Earth Observations & Models
    Lawrence Friedl, Doreen Neil, R. Bradley Pierce & the NASA Air Quality Program Team
  8. Extending the Use of NASA Research Results for Coastal Management Decision Support
    Lawrence A. Friedl, Callie M. Hall
  9. Originally published in the August 2005 issue of Earth Observation Magazine

  10. Extending NASA Research Capabilities For Disaster Management
    Stephen Ambrose, Shahid Habib, Rodney McKellip
  11. NASA Space Systems Enhance Public Health Science for Society
    John A. Haynes, Robert Venezia

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