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:


HyspIRI Science Workshop Day 3 – Community data and international collaboration

The final day of the HyspIRI Science Workshop saw emphasis on international collaborations and development of shared data resources for the remote sensing community. Vibrant conversations were heard around the meeting throughout the day, covering an array of topics, but mostly focusing on how remote sensing can be used to assist in addressing key societal questions, such as climate and environmental change.

In addition to ongoing presentations related to the NASA HyspIRI mission, colleagues from other countries described international efforts to develop satellite instruments using similar technologies. For example, DLR, the German Aerospace Center, reported great progress with EnMAP (Environmental Mapping and Analysis Programme). An exciting aspect of the EnMAP mission is that agreements have recently been established to make data from the mission freely available to interested researchers. Advances are also being made with HISUI (Hyperspectral Imager Suite), which is being developed by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and with PRISMA (PRecursore IperSpettrale della Missione Applicativa), which is a combined imaging spectrometer and panchromatic camera system under development by the Italian Space Agency.

HyspIRI - Guild et al.

Liane Guild (NASA ARC) discusses NASA’s COAST project with Sergio Cerdeira Estrada (CONABIO), Frank Muller-Karger (USF) and Ira Leifer (UCSB)

But it wasn’t all about satellites. Significant attention was also placed on the various airborne missions being used to demonstrate technology readiness, as well as perform their own valuable scientific investigations. This includes instruments such as AVIRIS, AVIRIS-ng, HyTES, PHyTIR, PRISM and APEX. The research being conducted using these instruments, which include both imaging spectrometers and multispectral thermal systems, is vital for validating engineering design components, data delivery mechanisms, calibration procedures, and image analysis algorithms. As a result, these instruments represent important steps forward in the progress of the HyspIRI mission. However, they also independently have great value, providing numerous opportunities for remote sensing scientists to develop new methods and deliver innovative research results.

In addition to the instruments themselves, scientists are also working towards improving overall data availability, calibration techniques and field validation methods. For example, NASA JPL is enlisting the remote sensing community to build an open-access spectral library, with the impressive goal of cataloging the spectral characteristics of as many of the Earth’s natural and manmade materials as possible. Such spectra represent important components in a variety of image classification and analysis algorithms. Other programs, such as the NEON project in the U.S. and the TERN project in Australia, are focused on collecting field data from example study sites and providing the data for others to use in their own research projects. It’s encouraging to see this level of community and collaboration.

As evidenced by the presentations and posters at the workshop, imaging spectrometry is a mature science with a wealth of proven application areas. However, this won’t stop scientists from continuing to innovate and push the limits of what can be achieved using this technology. There’s always a new idea around the next corner, and it’s workshops like this that help promote information exchange, development of new collaborations, and the creation of new research directions.

Presentations from the HyspIRI Science Workshop and information on the HyspIRI mission can be found at

HyspIRI Science Workshop Day 2 – Imaging spectrometry applications

The second day of the 2012 HyspIRI Science Workshop focused on science applications. The day included both speaker presentations and an interactive poster session, allowing ample opportunity for attendees to interact and share research ideas. Of particular relevance was discussion on how HyspIRI, as a large-scale global mapping instrument, will enable exciting new research directions at regional and global scales.

HyspIRI - Simon Hook - Marisa Kalemkarian

Simon Hook (NASA JPL) and Marisa Kalemkarian (CONAE) discuss research on water temperature derivation at the Lake Tahoe validation site

Since the full range of science applications presented at the workshop are numerous, a few select examples are presented here to indicate the breadth of topic areas. Kevin Turpie (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center) presented a summary of the coastal and inland aquatic products accessible using HyspIRI data. Andrew French (USDA Agricultural Research Service) discussed methods for estimating evapotranspiration in rangelands. Robert Wright (University of Hawaii at Manoa) examined techniques for assessing volcanic activity. Dar Roberts (University of California, Santa Barbara) illustrated the capacity for evaluating pre- and post- fire vegetation characteristics. And Jeffrey Luvall (NASA Marshall Space Flight Center) presented capabilities for monitoring surface and temperature characteristics in urban environments.

Presentations also included discussion of image processing methods, such as validating algorithms for onboard lossless compression of image data and utilizing high performance computing for efficient generation of data products. Additional speakers focused on topics such as improved atmospheric correction techniques, ground validation requirements, and a host of advanced image analysis techniques.

Overall it was a highly informative workshop. In addition to providing an avenue to discuss the HyspIRI mission, the workshop also allowed colleagues to re-connect, new collaborations to be established, and new ideas and research directions to emerge. Everyone is looking forward to the next workshop, and eagerly anticipating the future launch of the HyspIRI instrument.

Presentations from the HyspIRI Science Workshop and information on the HyspIRI mission can be found at

HyspIRI Science Workshop Day 1 – Instrument overview

Leading remote sensing scientists from across the U.S. and around the world gathered in Washington, D.C. from 16-18 October 2012 to attend the 5th annual HyspIRI Science Workshop. Discussion at the workshop centered on NASA’s HyspIRI instrument, providing the latest information on mission specifications and science objectives. As an open workshop, the meeting also offered a valuable opportunity for the remote sensing community to exchange ideas and make suggestions for improving and expanding HyspIRI’s global science impact.

HyspIRI Workshop - Rob Green - Woody Turner

Rob Green (NASA JPL) and Woody Turner (NASA HQ) answer audience questions

The HyspIRI instrument consists of two complementary sensor systems. One sensor is a visible to short wave infrared (VSWIR) imaging spectrometer, covering the spectral range from 380-2500nm at a 10nm sampling interval. The other sensor is an eight-channel thermal infrared (TIR) multispectral scanner, covering wavelengths between 4-12μm. The VSWIR sensor will provide repeat global coverage every 19 days, and the TIR sensor will have repeat coverage every 5 days, both at 60m spatial resolution. Acquisitions at this full spatial resolution will include the majority of the Earth’s land surface as well as coastal regions to a depth of 50m, while the deep ocean will be delivered at 1km spatial resolution.

Imaging spectrometry, a.k.a. hyperspectral imaging, is a robust remote sensing discipline with an outstanding heritage of science applications. It has been utilized extensively in Earth observation, as well as developing a high resolution mineralogical map of the lunar surface. Measurements are achieved by sampling the electromagnetic spectrum across a series of narrow contiguous wavebands and utilizing the resulting ‘spectral signature’ to identify and classify components in the image. The HyspIRI instrument provides a unique combination of these robust spectral analysis capabilities with multispectral thermal measurements.

The motivation behind the HyspIRI mission stems from recommendations made in the Earth Science Decadal Survey for an imaging spectrometer to be included in U.S. satellite development plans during the next decade. The lineage behind HyspIRI includes NASA’s highly successful airborne AVIRIS program, which has ably demonstrated the value of imaging spectrometry across a broad array of Earth science applications. HyspIRI also builds on the past success, and surprising longevity, of NASA’s Hyperion instrument, which established the feasibility and advantages of acquiring imaging spectrometry data from a satellite platform. As a global mapping mission, HyspIRI will improve on this past success, enabling an unprecedented capability for advanced remote sensing applications around the world.

Presentations from the HyspIRI Science Workshop and information on the HyspIRI mission can be found at

Google Maps Goes Underwater – A fish eye view of coral reefs

Maps have come a long way in recent years, thanks in part to efforts at places like Google and Microsoft as well as the ready availability of high resolution commercial satellite imagery from companies like GeoEye and DigitalGlobe. Combine this with on-the-ground photography and the result is an amazing ability to visualize our planet in ever increasing detail.

Google has recently taken the popular ‘Street View’ functionality into the underwater realm, offering 360° panoramas of reef locations in Australia, Hawaii and the Philippines. See examples of this imagery at With a viewpoint normally reserved for sea creatures and those fortunate enough to scuba dive in such locations, this imagery now provides a window into the natural wonders of the underwater realm for anyone with access to Google Maps.Google Street View - Coral Reef

The underwater imagery for this project is being acquired in a partnership between Google and the Catlin Seaview Survey, who are using an innovative underwater panoramic camera to capture these unique images. The Catlin Seaview Survey is acquiring photographic records of reef and other marine locations around the world, providing a permanent snapshot of environmental and habitat conditions at the time the photos were recorded. Thus, the imagery you see isn’t just remarkable to look at, but it also serves a valuable scientific purpose.

Underwater locations haven’t been the only stops along the way for Google’s Street View technology. As part of the Google World Wonders Project, other locations include world heritage sites around the globe, such as Stonehenge, Yosemite National Park and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, to name a few. The Street View technology offers an interactive 360° panorama that allows users take a virtual stroll through each location as if they were there.

As imagery such as this becomes more commonplace, and accessing satellite views of our neighborhood streets grows routine, don’t let the ease of these applications fool you. There is an amazing amount of technology behind acquiring this imagery and creating these maps. There are the satellites and cameras used to acquire the data, the algorithms used to assemble the images into seamless mosaics, the web software used to deliver the imagery to the user, and the people and companies who put it all together. It’s a complex process with many years of research needed to make it a reality. It will be exciting to see what comes next.

A Glimmer of Hope – It’s not all doom and gloom for coral reefs

International Coral Reef Symposium 2012 – Cairns, Australia – Final Thoughts

Jeremy Jackson

Dr. Jeremy Jackson presents his plenary address after receiving the Darwin Medal

On the final day of ICRS 2012 Dr. Jeremy Jackson was awarded the Darwin Medal for outstanding achievement in coral reef science. In his plenary speech following the award, Dr. Jackson asserted that despite the “doom and gloom” predictions there is indeed hope for the world’s coral reefs.

Hope in coral reef conservation is indeed an important message. Recent years have seen an overwhelming media focus on the many threats to coral reefs, the reports of significant decrease in reef health, and dire predictions of continued reef decline. Although important to understand and address, these discussions included little room for the optimistic side of coral reef science.

The message of hope has been a common theme at this year’s ICRS conference. Dr. Jackson presented evidence of hope for reef resilience, Dr. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg cited reasons for optimism in scientific achievements, Dr. Jane Lubchenco presented examples of successful conservation efforts, and International Coral Reef Society president Dr. Robert Richmond said “don’t worry… be happy”, stating that there is tremendous cause for optimism in the coral reef community. The overall message is that coral reef scientists and managers are making a difference in the fate of coral reefs.

This does not imply that coral reef experts can relax. Significant effort is still needed to continue improving our understanding of coral reefs, to get the message out and engage the greater community, and to take action with effective management plans. Success in these areas is dependent on developing new partnerships and collaborations and moving forward with a global voice for reef conservation.

These are fitting thoughts to conclude a week of success stories at ICRS 2012, with a message of optimism and a need for a more connected community.

Reef Management in the Cloud – Application of innovative new technologies

International Coral Reef Symposium 2012 – Cairns, Australia – Thoughts from Day 5

The “cloud” and “cloud computing” are becoming increasingly prevalent in consumer applications. Our email is stored in the cloud, much of our personal data is stored in the cloud, and our mobile devices commonly access information stored in the cloud. The same technology that makes these applications possible is now being harnessed for environmental management.

Julie Scopelitis

Dr. Julie Scopelitis demonstrating the Qehnelo software

Preserving natural ecosystems typically incorporates a complex balance of scientific, political, societal, and economic facts, needs and viewpoints. However, the data needed to perform the associated decision making process is often stored in physically separate locations. As a result, despite growing global connectivity, accessing and integrating this data can be a challenge, particularly in remote locations.

The cloud, or more specifically the vast network of remote servers and its associated software, is the foundation allowing access to diverse sets of data. Rather than copy and transmit copies of large volumes of data and/or software to different users, cloud computing allows users to remotely access distributed storage locations. In many cases this approach is not only more efficient, but also more democratic, allowing greater distribution of limited computing resources to a larger number of users.

An interesting example of cloud technology is Qehnelo, a web-based software product created by the New Caledonian company Bluecham. Qehnelo, whose name derives from a native phrase for “open door”, integrates remote data access with high-level decision support models. Dr. Julie Scopelitis is working on using this innovative software for coral reef monitoring and management. Through this software, Julie is able to better leverage her own expertise and ultimately put the power of advanced technology into the hands of managers, conservationists and scientists.

It is exciting to see such innovative new technology being used for coral reef management. We are sure to see this trend continue as computing resources become more affordable and more accessible.

Keeping An Eye on Corals – Image based science and management

International Coral Reef Symposium 2012 – Cairns, Australia – Thoughts from Day 4

Amongst the many coral reef professionals gathered in Cairns, which include a diverse mix of ecologists, biologists, geologists, oceanographers and managers, there are also a collection of the world’s foremost experts in remote sensing of coral reefs. These scientists provide the “eyes from above” that deliver large-scale overviews of entire coral reef systems.

ICRS: Brando and Botha

Dr. Vittorio Brando and Dr. Elizabeth Botha from CSIRO present their poster on coral reef remote sensing

In the context of coral reef science, remote sensing encompasses a number of different but related disciplines, including photography, multispectral and hyperspectral imaging, lidar, radar and acoustics. Measurements are acquired from airplanes, satellites, ships, underwater vehicles, and from land. The commonality is that the output from each technology produces two-dimensional, and in some cases three-dimensional, images of the reef and its surrounding environment.

Analysis of these images spans a variety of techniques. At its most straightforward level, remote sensing can be used to simply visualize coral reefs and manually interpret what is present in a given areas, such as identifying the locations of reef, seagrass, sand, water, mangrove, beach and land. More significantly, these images can be quantitatively analyzed to derive vital measurements of reef distribution, properties and health. For example, imagery can be used to determine parameters such as habitat composition, water clarity, water depth, topographic complexity and water temperature. Knowledge of such parameters is critical for understanding how reefs function as well as how they respond to changes in the environment.

The field of coral reef remote sensing has evolved significantly in the past decade, with new technologies and improved analysis methods enabling increasingly complex scientific and management questions to be addressed using image-based tools. As evident during the symposium, remote sensing is now omnipresent throughout the coral reef community. The information derived from remote sensing provides descriptive maps that are basis for scientific investigations and form the foundation of many coral reef management plans.

It has been encouraging to see the breadth and sophistication of applications in the remote sensing presentations at the ICRS. It will be exciting to see how coral reef remote sensing continues to grow in the coming years.

Remote Coral Reefs – Living Oceans Foundation travels the world

International Coral Reef Symposium 2012 – Cairns, Australia – Thoughts from Day 3

ICRS Living Oceans Booth

Amanda Williams (Living Oceans Foundation; right) and Dr. Julie Scopelitis (left) in front of the Living Oceans Foundation booth at ICRS 2012

Starting in 2011 and continuing through 2016 the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation is conducting a global expedition to explore and document the conditions of remote reefs around the world. The purpose, according to Living Oceans GIS analyst Amanda Williams, is “to characterize remote coral reef ecosystems around the world in order to both map habitat status and assist managers with identifying resilient reef locations.”

The expedition, which is being conducted from the well-appointed 219 foot research ship the Golden Shadow, began in the Bahamas and the Caribbean, is scheduled to proceed through the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean, and ultimately conclude its remarkable journey in the Red Sea. Throughout its worldwide travels the ship is stopping at remote reef locations, where scientists are measuring important ecological parameters to document reef composition and health.

Each stop along the tour is coordinated with local partners and conducted using specific management objectives in mind. Data is collected using snorkeling, scuba diving, and other research techniques that allow scientists direct access to the complex underwater reef environment. This same field data is also being integrated with high resolution satellite imagery to generate informative new habitat maps.

The intent of the expedition is not only to provide comprehensive assessments of select coral reefs throughout the world, but also to collectively use the gathered information to answer important questions for coral reef science, preservation and management. By documenting the conditions on these remote reefs, which are some of the healthiest in the world, scientists aim to enhance our overall understanding of coral reefs and improve conservation efforts. The Global Reef Expedition and its accomplishments can be followed online at

Coral Reef Remote Sensing – High technology from above and below

International Coral Reef Symposium 2012 – Cairns, Australia – Thoughts from Day 2


Draft cover: Coral Reef Remote Sensing

The second day of ICRS 2012 saw the exciting launch of an innovative book entitled “Coral Reef Remote Sensing: A guide for mapping, monitoring and management.” This groundbreaking new book explains and demonstrates how satellite and other imaging technologies, referred to collectively as “remote sensing,” are essential for understanding and managing coral reef environments around the world.

The book is produced by an international group of coral reef scientists and managers who collectively demonstrate for the first time how the unique data provided by the world’s satellite and other imaging sensors are used for the full range of science and monitoring activities required to understand and manage coral reefs. These remote sensing resources are now unparalleled in the types of information they produce, the level of detail, the area covered and the length of the time over which data has been collected.  When used in combination with field data and knowledge of coral reef ecology and oceanography, remote sensing is an essential source of information for understanding, assessing and managing coral reefs around the world.

The assembled team of authors are from research institutions, governments and non-government organizations around the world. The lead editor of the book is HySpeed Computing president, James Goodman, in collaboration with co-editors Samuel Purkis from Nova Southeastern University and Stuart Phinn from University of Queensland. The authors produced a book that comprehensively explains each remote sensing data collection technology, and more importantly how each technology is used for coral reef management activities around the world.

The book is scheduled to be available January 2013 from Springer publishing. It is accessible to a general audience as well as remote sensing specialists, resource managers, and anyone else working with coral reef ecosystems.