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This article is from the In-Depth Report Science and the Obama Administration

9 Ways NASA Can Tackle Climate Change

Scientists tell Pres. Barack Obama how the space agency could help solve the world's number-one problem



NASA

NASA could be one of the nation's most potent weapons in battling climate change. The space agency has conducted decades of research into weather, life-support systems and the atmospheres of other planets providing it with unique skills to address this problem.

It would be easy for policymakers to overlook NASA as they map out a strategy for solving Earth's biggest environmental woes. But here are some important reasons why they shouldn't.

NASA has 21 Earth-observing spacecraft in orbit today, five more missions in development, and has been studying Earth's climate for the past three decades. This includes, for example, ICEsat, which monitors polar ice cap shrinkage. Scientists from across the globe use the data from these missions to refine their understanding of Earth's changing atmosphere. Some of their number crunching is done on NASA supercomputers (including the largest civilian one in the world). In turn, these models provide us with a basic understanding of the status of our climate and the means to make predictions of future changes.

NASA has a proved ability to accomplish major engineering feats. Climate change is an immense challenge that involves an extremely complex system—the environment—along with advanced technologies that could be used to measure it and mitigate problems. Each of these facets is a significant scientific and technical hurdle, but perhaps the biggest challenge is to bring everything together into a comprehensive, integrated plan. This will require a coordinated effort of thousands of scientists and engineers, and large-scale deployment, perhaps not unlike the retooling of manufacturing during World War II or the Apollo project. There are few organizations with the relevant capacity, and NASA is one.

From the joint U.S.–Soviet Apollo–Soyuz mission during the height of the Cold War to the current International Space Station (ISS), NASA has successfully completed large engineering projects with other nations,and climate change management will undoubtedly require a global effort.

NASA also has decades of experience with green technologies such as solar cells, fuels cells, turbine technology, biofuels, carbon sequestration, and closed-loop life-support systems. This last capability helps NASA to manage the near-100 percent recycling of consumables on board the ISS—an important step to understanding how to do that on a natural spaceship, the one we call Earth.

Finally, NASA enabled the Planet Earth perspective. On Christmas Eve 40 years ago, the first human beings to enter the gravitational sphere of another planetary body, the moon, took a picture of Earth rising above the lunar surface—Earthrise. Pictures like these kicked off the environmental movement; allowing humanity to realize the extreme isolation and fragility of our planet.

But NASA can do more if the new Pres. Barack Obama and Congress give it the chance. The following are nine ways that it can help solve the world's energy and climate change problems:

1. Develop an integrated, global plan for energy and the environment. In collaboration with international partners and other agencies, and taking into account climate change data, the best models of their progression, and characteristics of renewable energy technologies (and the expected rate of their improvement), this plan would, among other things, detail: the rates of renewable technology deployment required; whatever additional climate data is necessary; the proper levels of carbon trading and caps; the data needed to measure the impact of those caps; and what mitigation technologies should be deployed. The plan would make clear whether nations could meet the internationally agreed-on carbon dioxide emission limits and still fulfill their energy needs. And if the current trajectory does not suffice, then what adaptations, in what technological areas, and in what locations would be needed to ensure they are met.

2. Open NASA facilities to "green tech" companies. NASA should be allowed to open its facilities and experts to innovative green technology companies and nonprofits. NASA has a wide range of facilities that are of relevance to green technologies from research stations in the arctic and desert, to the world's largest wind tunnels, to supercomputers. For example, a novel, high-altitude wind energy company Makani Power, partially funded by Google, is making use of the NASA Ames Research Center wind tunnels for advancing their energy production designs.

3. Create an energy/environment data center. NASA has vast amounts of relevant data. This includes Earth observation data and information on the global flow of energy, solar weather, the magnetosphere that influences our system, relevant green technologies, and aviation data. Together with other key agencies—such as the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA could provide all such data in common standard formats. Starting with the approach NASA already takes with its Planetary Data System to host the information, NASA should take it a step further, providing an application programming interface for others to use this treasure trove.

4. Utilize small, inexpensive spacecraft to collect climate data. Following the recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences's first-ever Decadal Survey for Earth Science, NASA should establish a venture class of spacecraft for Earth observing to enable the collection of more data for less cost. Today a great deal of valuable Earth observation data can be collected on small satellites that are an order of magnitude lighter as well as an order of magnitude lower cost. A good example is the Disaster Monitoring Constellation, which is an international constellation of five small remote-sensing satellites, each costing approximately $20 million (20 to 50 times less expensive than typical NASA satellites). Although of lower resolution and finesse than the NASA birds, at so much lower cost they can give higher temporal resolution and certainly more data for a given expenditure.

5. Invest in "green" aviation. Let us not forget that the first A in NASA is Aeronautics. NASA could be tasked to help to develop some of the key technologies that would enable "green aviation"—technologies that could help aircraft use less fuel or be carbon neutral. These include more fuel-efficient air traffic control, lighter-weight structures, more advanced combustion control systems as well as electric, solar or biofuel-based motors. For example, NASA could lead a concerted research effort on electric planes, focusing on production and testing of prototype vehicles whose designs are then made as open hardware, accessible to the aerospace industry.

6. Use of UAVs for regional climate modeling. Currently there is a gap between aircraft observations that are high-resolution but limited in coverage, and satellite data, which provide a global view but with lower resolution. NASA UAVs and other airborne platforms could be used as gap-fillers in a more active program that offers regional, high-resolution, climate data collection, along with immediate response to disasters. For example, in 2008 NASA flew an adapted Predator drone over California wildfires providing real-time, Web-based information delivery to decision makers, which California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger credited with playing a critical role in fighting those fires.

7. Greater U.S. Government collaboration. NASA should be encouraged to work more closely with the other relevant U.S. agencies as well as its international counterparts. Today researchers from NASA and the DoE, for instance, can't even enter one another's facilities without advance permission. Within the U.S., there is a lack of clarity for the roles played by the alphabet soup of federal agencies that have environmental programs—the DoE, NASA, NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey, among them. It is NASA and NOAA that primarily collect the climate change data, and it is the DoE that primarily deals with energy. These three organizations alone managed over 80 percent of the $11.6-billion U.S. environment and energy research budget in 2008; they also employ the bulk of government scientists and engineers that can contribute to solving the massive systems engineering problems of climate change and sustainable energy.

NASA and NOAA work together, but the relationship between them and the DOE needs an overhaul. The relevant programs of these agencies could all report to a new energy and climate czar, preferably with budgetary authority (being the convening impetus). Alternatively, the U.S. could even form a new "Energy and Environment Agency," along the lines of a similar department recently created in the U.K.—forcing the marriage of energy and climate change problems and a pooling of all the above investment. The Obama administration should also consider boosting the authority and size of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy so that it has the muscle to coax agencies into working together. It should seriously consider the benefits of such cross-organizational collaboration at an international level, as seen in the successful cases of CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) and the European Space Agency.

8. Create an Earth Systems Directorate. NASA should be instructed to elevate its Earth Science Division to the status of a directorate—bringing it on par with human exploration, space science and aeronautics as key functions of the agency. This directorate would bring together all the other NASA programs relevant to energy and the environment, including Earth observation and modeling, green energy technologies, and supercomputing capabilities.

9. Increasing public participation in green programs. Climate challenge cannot be tackled without the participation of the public, and NASA is well-positioned to help connect the public with the exciting research being undertaken on ways to address our energy and climate change problems. One example of this is an Web effort called OpenNASA.com which is an open dialogue between NASA employees and the public on all of the agency's policies.

Of course, NASA is far from the end-all solution to climate change. Effective solutions must occur on a global scale with all nations coordinating their efforts and even, perhaps, resources. But NASA does have much untapped potential in this regard. Moreover, most of the changes above do not require new money so much as organizational changes: Small satellites just enable more within the same budget and opening up facilities to green tech companies costs very little, relatively speaking. The only recommendation that would require more than several million dollars annually would be a serious program on green aviation. That would likely cost about $100 million annually according to a recent study by NASA Ames: This could either come from new monies forked over by Congress or from existing aeronautics funds diverted toward that effort. All told, the above programs might add up to $200 million, or approximately 1 percent of NASA's annual budget.

NASA's primary function has been the exploration of the solar system. Along the way, however, it has contributed greatly to our understanding of Earth. Whereas NASA should certainly continue to conduct space exploration, its engineering muscle should be applied in a more focused manner to solve the biggest problems in our home world. Thus, the Obama administration should make better use of NASA's talents when implementing its energy and environment plan. Perhaps the new NASA motto could be: Science, Settlement and Sustainability.

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