The Future of NASA Earth Science – Preview of upcoming satellite launches


The “Blue Marble” (image courtesy NASA)

Since its establishment in 1958, NASA has become well known for its advances in space exploration, and closer to home, highly recognized for its long history of scientific research using Earth observing satellites. From the early days of the TIROS program, whose first satellite was launched in 1960, to the more recent Landsat program, which has spanned 40 years of operation from 1972 to present (…and still going), NASA has been a leader in using satellite observations to improve our understanding of Earth.

NASA is currently operating an unprecedented number of Earth observing satellites, with many more in the pipeline. Here’s a look at some of the instruments NASA plans on launching in the coming years:

LDCM: Landsat Data Continuity Mission. As mentioned, the Landsat program has been operating since 1972. This longevity has enabled an enormous volume of remote sensing research to be accomplished, primarily focused on land surfaces but also including applications in the shallow coastal zone. With the lifespans of all the previous Landsat instruments reaching their end, and a hardware failure on Landsat 7, NASA recognized the need to move forward with a replacement to this important family of instruments. The LDCM will contain two instruments, the Operational Land Imager, measuring nine bands in the visible to short wave infrared, eight multispectral and one panchromatic, and the Thermal Infrared Sensor, measuring two thermal bands. LDCM, a collaborative mission between NASA and USGS, is currently scheduled for launch in early 2013.

GPM: Global Precipitation Measurement. The GPM mission, an international partnership co-led by NASA and JAXA (Japan Aerospace and Exploration Agency), builds on the success of TRMM (Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission) launched in 1997. Whereas TRMM was designed to measure rainfall in the tropical and sub-tropical regions, GPM will acquire global measurements of both rainfall and snow. The concept for the GPM mission centers on a Core Observatory satellite, which will contain the latest advanced instruments to serve as a reference for calibrating measurements from a host of other operational satellites. The GPM Core Observatory contains two instruments, the GMI (GPM Microwave Imager) and the DPR (Dual-Frequency Precipitation Radar). The GPM Core Observatory is scheduled for launch in 2014.

OCO-2: Orbiting Carbon Observatory. The OCO-2 mission is a replacement satellite for the original OCO instrument launched in 2009 that unfortunately failed to make orbit. OCO-2 will acquire precise global measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide, providing scientists with an unprecedented ability to explore the spatial and temporal patterns of carbon dioxide levels in our planet’s atmosphere. Measurements will be obtained using a single instrument containing three separate spectrometers to measure three narrow bands in the near-infrared that are sensitive to the presence of atmospheric gases.  OCO-2 is scheduled for launch in 2014.

SMAP: Soil Moisture Active Passive. Understanding soil moisture plays an important role in weather and climate forecasting, as well as predicting droughts, floods, landslides and agricultural productivity. To address this need, the SMAP mission will deliver global measurements of both soil moisture and its freeze/thaw state. SMAP measurements will be made using two L-band instruments, a radiometer and a synthetic aperture radar. Utilizing the L-band frequency allows measurements to be acquired night or day, irrespective of cloud cover, and even through moderate vegetation. SMAP is scheduled for launch in late 2014.

As each new instrument passes through the requisite design review process, it moves closer to approval for launch. Listed above are just some of the instruments approaching this auspicious achievement. There are many more on the way, with even more in the early planning stages. As a result of this ongoing progress, our ability to assess and monitor the condition of our planet has never been greater, with bold plans to continue improving this capacity in the future.

For more on NASA’s history, visit:

For information on NASA’s satellite program, visit:


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