This week, NASA celebrated ten years of its rover Opportunity looking for signs of life on Mars. And while the allure of that mysterious planet doesn’t seem to have abated, scientists at the space agency are now turning a more critical eye down to a place where they already know there’s life — and hope to keep it that way — Earth.
NASA announced on Wednesday that it has five missions planned for 2014 that are designed to collect much needed data on Earth’s vital signs, from the water cycle, to wind patterns and pollution. The missions consist of three satellites and two instruments that will join the massive floating laboratory that is the International Space Station.
In just over a month, the first of the satellite missions will launch from Japan’s space center. The satellite, the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory is a joint mission with Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency and will collect detailed observations of global rain and snowfall patterns.
In July, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2 will also be launched into Earth’s orbit. The “2” is because the original satellite intended to gather this data, which made a launch attempt back in February 2009, failed to reach orbit and was destroyed as it fell back to Earth. Once safely up in orbit, OCO-2 will start collecting the most precise measurements of atmospheric CO2 ever made from space. The satellite will help characterize both artificial and natural sources and sinks at a regional scale, of the greenhouse gas.
The last of the satellites NASA has planned for launch in 2014 is the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission, which will monitor the water content in Earth’s soil. The high-resolution maps of soil moisture the collected data will produce will help researchers studying flooding and droughts as well as help predict area of high plant productivity an agricultural potential.
“On our home planet Earth, water is an essential requirement for life and for most human activities. We must understand the details of how water moves within and between the atmosphere, the oceans, and the land if we are to predict changes to our climate and the availability of water resources,” said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division in Washington in a press release. “Coupled with data from other ongoing NASA missions that measure sea-surface salinity and that detect changes in underground aquifer levels, with GPM and SMAP we will have unprecedented measurements of our planet’s vital water cycle.”
The first instrument headed to the International Space Station will measure ocean winds circulation around the globe, which is crucial to tracking hurricanes and storms. The second will track aerosol movements, such as air pollution, dust and smoke. The Obama administration recently committed to support the space station through 2024.
NASA renewed focus on Earth’s systems comes two years after the National Academy of Sciences warned budget pressure, program delays and launch failures had left scientists facing a “rapid decline” in Earth observations as the U.S. satellite fleet aged.
Six more missions are ready to launch by the end of 2020, including satellites that help measure the dynamics of the polar ice sheets and measure human use of water in aquifers.