Tuesday, November 30, 2021

NASA brings technology to Earth to focus on climate change

After decades of observing space, NASA is turning its technology back to Earth to study the impact of drought, fire and climate change on the Blue Planet.

Scientists and government officials gathered at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge on Thursday to discuss how satellite data, 3D imagery, and new radar and laser technologies can provide invaluable insights into Earth’s rapidly changing systems.

Some said the meeting marked a dramatic change for previously scattered agencies and highlighted the need to work together to resolve the climate crisis.

“I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but in truth, this is a discussion about saving our planet,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told a group that included Earth and space scientists from NASA and JPL, local congressional and California representatives. … Environment Ministers Wade Crowfoot and Jared Blumenfeld.

According to Nelson, the upcoming Earth-based missions will allow a more accurate view of “everything that happens” with the oceans, land and atmosphere than ever before. Among the most expensive items were new instruments to measure snow cover and groundwater, satellites to monitor methane emissions, and remote sensing tools to assess the impact of hazards such as wildfires, earthquakes and landslides.

“We are facing an existential crisis on this planet,” said Crowfoot, the state’s secretary of natural resources. “These problems are very serious. … But there is no better place for this work than California, because we understand the seriousness of the threat. “

The meeting between California and federal officials was very different from 2018, when the then government, frustrated by the Trump administration’s efforts to thwart climate research,. Jerry Brown insisted that California launch “our damn satellite to figure out where the pollution is and how we’re going to end it.”

Now, three years later, Californians just need to look out of the window to understand what scientists can observe from above. Wildfires are burning record areas in the West, while deepening drought is depleting the region’s water supplies to an unseen level. The state also recorded the hottest summer on record in 2021.

Many at the meeting hoped that the findings from NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory would help combat global warming by informing decision-makers when determining the best way forward.

“The ability to have this data is truly a game changer,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy, noting that the US could also lead the way in using the same tools to the rest of the world. “Because we will never solve the climate problem until everyone is involved.”

Many of the projects have developed over the years, but a recent memorandum of understanding between the state and JPL helped get additional projects off the ground, Crowfoot said, including critical issues related to water resistance. The western United States has witnessed such severe droughts in recent months that officials have closed the Lake Oroville hydropower plant for the first time and, among other things, announced the first-ever water shortage on the Colorado River.

One new web platform, OpenET, will provide satellite information on evapotranspiration, the process by which water leaves plants, soil and other surfaces, which can help government officials understand water use in agricultural areas and help farmers with precision irrigation.

“As the saying goes, we’re doing our best to manage this water resource, but we’re never going to do it with the sophistication we need without partners like NASA,” Crowfoot said, adding that the agency could be “the pinnacle of success.” spear ”when it comes to fighting climate change.

Other water-related elements include surface water and ocean topography tools known as SWOT, which will contribute to NASA’s first-ever global survey of Earth’s surface water. Every 21 days, the SWOT will survey nearly 600,000 miles of the world’s rivers at least twice, helping drought forecasters and preparing for hazardous floods, officials said. It is scheduled to launch in 2022.

JPL interim director Larry James said the next generation of hydrometric spacecraft will also allow scientists to measure the height and flow of freshwater bodies for the first time, while laser spectrometers will help study snow melt and snow volume.

But scientists are not only studying water. Methane has also been a topic of discussion, with plans to launch a new satellite in 2023 to help control emissions concentrations, which are the second-largest contributor to greenhouse warming after carbon dioxide.

Blumenfeld, California’s secretary of the Environment, said the state’s three largest methane producers are the oil and gas industry, landfills, and agriculture (notably large livestock and dairy farms). The new tool will allow anyone to see, for example, if there is a methane leak at a refinery.

“It provides accountability, which is a critical element we need to cope with the climate crisis, and it wouldn’t have happened without NASA and the JPL,” Blumenfeld said. “All over the world, living in California is a really big deal.”

Scientists work on the NISAR satellite on October 14 at JPL.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times) #

But space travel has also been scrutinized for its own environmental impact, as the fuel needed to launch rockets into space can release carbon dioxide, liquid hydrogen, kerosene, or other chemicals into the atmosphere.

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The launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket from SpaceX, Elon Musk’s private space transportation company, burned about 400 metric tons of kerosene and emitted more carbon dioxide in minutes than the average car in more than two centuries. reports found – and it is expected that in the coming years the number of commercial space flights will increase tenfold.

But NASA administrators say their projects are getting “smaller and smarter,” and one official notes that the methane satellite is “the size of a shoebox.”

“This is an absolutely insignificant part, but it is a real problem,” Melroy said of the rocket releases, noting that the agency is working to develop more environmentally friendly fuels.

And while many of the new tools provide an overview of large-scale global issues, some are much more localized. Nelson said people don’t have to be scientists to understand the effects of wildfires, droughts, sinkholes, or floods.

“There are places in the country represented in the halls of government that will be very resisting, so we have to tell a story,” he said. “We have to educate people, and, unfortunately, all these disasters are increasingly helping us to do this.”

California bushfires have burned nearly 2.5 million acres this year, the second since 2020, the state’s worst bushfire season on record. Whole cities are burnt in flames.

Several of NASA’s tools could help determine where wildfires are observed or where coals are smoldering, which could potentially endanger firefighters and ignite new fires, officials said. Others may use sophisticated radar systems over disaster areas to assess damage and assist rapid response services.

JPL Science and Technology Director Jim Graf said they could also fly over the 1,100-mile dam system in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to quickly identify subsidence or weaknesses. This information can help officials make decisions on critical infrastructure such as roads, bridges and aqueducts.

Officials also showed off their NASA-ISRO synthetic aperture radar satellite, or NISAR, on Thursday, which is still under construction and “will provide an unprecedented view of Earth” when launched in 2023, they said. The satellite will monitor the entire globe, scanning glaciers, volcanoes and other systems for disturbances.

“Basically, it will use two radar devices that will track changes on the Earth’s surface,” said Susan Owen McCollum, deputy research scientist for the NISAR project. “It actually tells you a lot: how fast the ice sheets are melting, how fast the earth is moving.”

Another aspect of the radar would allow officials to track how forest biomass is changing through carbon containment or other processes, McCollum said, which could be important for studying places like the Amazon.

“Radar is a very powerful imaging tool — it sees the Earth differently,” she said.

But NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory also kept the last frontier in mind, and on Thursday officials offered to inspect the control room of the Mars Perseverance rover. The rover, which landed on Mars in February, is collecting rock samples that will be returned to Earth for closer examination.

According to them, the Ingenuity helicopter, which arrived with the rover, also performed more than a dozen flights, demonstrating for the first time that a controlled flight on another planet is possible.

Still, while the challenges of space exploration may seem like a world far from those here on Earth, Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley said there is a lot to learn from the red planet. Some of the rocks his team are studying are 3.5 billion years old and date back to when liquid water flowed across the surface of Mars.

According to him, today there is no liquid water on the surface of Mars and, in fact, there is no atmosphere.

“This is an example of massive climate change – from a planet that we believe could be habitable to a planet that, at least on the surface, is not,” Farley said. “This is a clear example that the climate is changing, and it can change a lot.”

Nelson, the NASA administrator, echoed these sentiments when he reached out to the rover’s control team.

“This is one of the important things that I think happens to every person who has had the privilege of looking out the window of a spaceship as you revolve around the Earth,” he said. “You see how beautiful he is, but how fragile.”

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