NASA to develop $2.5 billion, five-satellite Earth System Observatory

An astronaut on the International Space Station took this picture during an orbital sunrise in April 2021. Credit: NASA

The Biden administration announced this week that NASA will develop a series of five Earth science satellite missions over the next decade, part of a $2.5 billion program called the Earth System Observatory to collect climate and geological data identified as priorities in a 2018 decadal survey.

The first Earth System Observatory project — the joint U.S.-Indian NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar, or NISAR, mission — has been in development since 2014 and is scheduled for launch in January 2023.

“A major Biden administration priority is climate change, and as our eyes in the sky, NASA has a big role to play,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a joint meeting Tuesday of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board. “Simply put, if you want to mitigate climate change, you’ve got to measure it. And, of course, that is what NASA is doing.”

NISAR will combine L-band and S-band radars on the same spacecraft to measure changes on Earth’s surface smaller than a half-inch, or 1 centimeter. The NISAR mission will observe the flow rates of glaciers, the collapse of ice sheets, and the dynamics of earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides, according to NASA.

NASA is supplying the NISAR mission’s L-band radar, a high-rate communications system, and data storage systems. India is building the S-band radar, the spacecraft bus, and the launch vehicle for NISAR.

“As the number of extreme weather events increases due to climate change, the ability to forecast and monitor natural disasters is integral for the nation’s preparation, mitigation, and resilience,” the White House said in a fact sheet released Monday outlining the Earth System Observatory.

The White House said the five-satellite program “will be a new architecture of advanced space borne Earth observation systems, providing the world with an unprecedented understanding of the critical interactions between Earth’s atmosphere, land, ocean, and ice processes.

“These processes determine how the changing climate will play out at regional and local levels, on near and long-term time scales,” the White House said.

The announcement of NASA’s Earth System Observatory Monday came at the same time as the Biden administration said it will provide $1 billion through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to support states, local communities, tribes, and territories in pre-disaster hazard mitigation projects.

Artist’s concept of the joint U.S.-Indian NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar, or NISAR, satellite scheduled for launch in 2023. Credit: NASA

Nelson said Tuesday that NASA will develop the the Earth System Observatory missions over the next decade.

“In that decade, we’re going to spend about $2.5 billion,” Nelson said. “We’re going to launch five spacecraft, the first of which will be in January of 2023, so it’s only a year and a half away, and it’s going to be a joint mission with India. That particular mission is going to concentrate on earthquakes, on lava flows, on volcanoes, on ice breaking off, major shifts.”

NASA currently has 23 Earth science observing missions in orbit, including six instruments operating on the International Space Station.

Nelson said the Earth System Observatory is “going to bring us up to another magnitude of observing the Earth.”

According to NASA, areas of focus for the observatory include:

  • Aerosols: Answering the critical question of how aerosols affect the global energy balance, a key source of uncertainty in predicting climate change.
  • Cloud, Convection, and Precipitation: Tackling the largest sources of uncertainty in future projections of climate change, air quality forecasting, and prediction of severe weather.
  • Mass Change: Providing drought assessment and forecasting, associated planning for water use for agriculture, as well as supporting natural hazard response.
  • Surface Biology and Geology: Understanding climate changes that impact food and agriculture, habitation, and natural resources, by answering open questions about the fluxes of carbon, water, nutrients, and energy within and between ecosystems and the atmosphere, the ocean, and the Earth.
  • Surface Deformation and Change: Quantifying models of sea-level and landscape change driven by climate change, hazard forecasts, and disaster impact assessments, including dynamics of earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, glaciers, groundwater, and Earth’s interior.

“The bottom line of this is it’s going give a 3D view of the Earth from the atmosphere to the bedrock,” Nelson said.

A panel of researchers from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine identified the Earth science priorities in the most recent decadal survey released in 2018.

The Trump administration proposed canceling multiple NASA Earth science missions, but Congress continued funding the projects. President Biden’s first budget request proposes $2.3 billion for NASA’s Earth science programs in fiscal year 2022, an increase of $250 million over the 2021 funding level.

The Earth science funding presumably includes money for the Earth System Observatory missions. Details of the Biden administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget request will be released Friday.

Congress will determine NASA’s final budget for 2022.

An overview of the budget proposal released last month shows the White House plans to ask Congress for $24.7 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2022, $1.5 billion above the 2021 budget.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.