NASA to Launch Climate Observation Satellites 

Hurricane Maria, shown here in a 2017 thermal image captured by NASA’s Terra satellite   Image: NASA

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

Missions from NASA have put a man on the moon and a rover on Mars, but a new Earth-focused mission will provide crucial information about climate change and extreme weather. The Earth System Observatory will launch at least five satellites by the end of the decade that will “enhance, or in some cases revolutionize” observations compared to current satellites, Axois reports. Data the new observatory will focus on includes how clouds and precipitation impact air quality and predict extreme weather, changes in carbon, water, nutrients, and energy that impact agriculture and natural resources, and sea-level rise and other landscape changes caused by climate change.

Why This Matters: NASA is focusing now on its ability to “see” the Earth, not just to explore space, as part of a broader climate re-orientation at the agency, which includes a new climate advisor position and an increase in climate-oriented missions. With the planet rapidly changing, having data that can pinpoint what’s going on and where is essential. That information can be used to make decisions about climate policy, develop more precise climate change forecasts, and steer natural disaster response. “You can’t mitigate climate change unless you measure it, and that’s NASA’s expertise,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at his Senate confirmation hearing. 

From NASA’s Point of View

“Over the past three decades, much of what we’ve learned about the Earth’s changing climate is built on NASA satellite observations and research,” Nelson said in a statement. “NASA’s new Earth System Observatory will expand that work, providing the world with an unprecedented understanding of our Earth’s climate system, arming us with next-generation data critical to mitigating climate change, and protecting our communities in the face of natural disasters.” Nelson, who flew on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986, has felt the “overview effect” astronauts describe when they can see the whole Earth from space. “I became more of an environmentalist when I flew in space,” he told Axois.

Decades of Observing Earth 

NASA has a long history of keeping tabs on earth, beginning in 1960 when it launched the TIROS-1 satellite as part of an effort to monitor the weather from space. The agency also partners with NOAA to observe the status of ice sheets and CO2 levels in the atmosphere and even wildfires during the height of the season. All of this experience will be put to use as the Biden administration prioritizes climate at the agency. 

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