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NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale's Blog: Earth Science

Status Report From: NASA HQ
Posted: Wednesday, October 3, 2007

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When I talk with people outside the agency, they usually want to talk about human space flight and science, specifically our efforts to explore and understand the cosmos. What a lot of people don’t realize is that some of the agency’s most important and interesting work is focused right here on Earth.

When people see a news report about a hurricane approaching our shores or a wildfire encroaching on a neighborhood, they should know that NASA is at the forefront of developing the technologies to better understand the causes in addition to assisting in helping other organizations respond.  It’s good to know that NASA helps to protect lives.

I consistently hear from other agency representatives and, in fact, users of NASA’s Earth research--forest rangers, fisherman, meteorologists, oceanographers--that NASA satellites and the data they retrieve are one of the key information sources in helping them do their jobs and in many cases helping better protect our Earth’s natural resources.

NASA launched the world’s first experimental meteorological satellite in 1960, and currently we have 14 Earth-observing satellites in orbit doing incredible research that has direct benefit to humankind. Once we develop and test new technologies, we hand them off to other federal agencies like NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey to provide vital services to the nation through operational meteorology and climate satellites. But at the core, it’s NASA’s essential advances that have helped revolutionize the information that emergency officials have to respond to natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires.   

I think we all watched the news coverage of the western wildfires this summer. One of our new technologies, an unmanned aircraft system, is being developed to demonstrate improved wildfire imaging and mapping capabilities. Called Predator B "Ikhana", it has completed four flights testing a sophisticated thermal-infrared imaging sensor and real-time data communications equipment developed by the Ames Research Center.

We also are developing a sensor that can peer through thick smoke and haze to record hot spots and the progression of wildfires. The system collects data that can transfer within minutes information to aid personnel battling active wildfires. That technology comes from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center partnering with the U.S. Forest Service.

We’re exploring the uncharted places few, if any, humans have ever seen. The Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica, for example, is a collaborative effort between NASA, the United States Geological Survey, the National Science Foundation and the British Antarctic Survey to make the best-ever satellite map of Antarctica. This mosaic stitches together thousands of scenes and gives stunning new views of one of the least explored places on our home planet!

Scientists working on the project say that the comparison of the new map to previous ones is like the difference between a 1970s 12-inch black and white TV and a state-of-the-art 50" high definition plasma screen. Aside from being beautiful, every pixel of the map is scientifically meaningful to researchers who study features and changes on the frozen continent. Keep an eye out for the full release of the image mosaic later this fall.

There are two Earth Science missions planned for launch in the first part of 2008. First up is the Ocean Surface Topography mission in June. This joint NASA-French space agency mission will improve weather forecasts and better predict hurricane paths.

Later, in December 2008, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory will launch. This mission will make space-based measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide with amazing accuracy and resolution never before achieved. Such information will improve forecasts of concentrations of this important greenhouse gas and how this affects climate and climate change. Other state-of-the-art NASA climate research satellites are planned to be launched in 2009 and 2010, and a new Landsat mission is planned for launch in 2011.

The world counts on NASA to examine our planet from the unique vantage point of space. Other agencies and local governments are enthusiastic about receiving our data.  These of course are only a few examples out of numerous exciting Earth research activities. I recommend you visit our Life on Earth web sites to learn more.

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