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The Man Who Takes "Selfies" of Earth for NASA

Michael Freilich, the scientist who directs the Earth Science Division, explains the importance of the Earth-monitoring satellites


Michael Freilich: Director of NASA's Earth Science Division.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr

NASA is well-known for its lunar landings and missions to Mars. But the agency makes major use of its space expertise running satellites that monitor the Earth, its climate and its weather.

It currently operates 16 Earth science research missions, and the agency's Earth Science Division is scheduled to launch up to five more in 2014.

Michael Freilich, the scientist who directs the Earth Science Division, took a few minutes to discuss with ClimateWire the importance of the Earth science missions and what he is looking forward to in the new year.

ClimateWire: Why is it important to observe the Earth from space?

Michael Freilich: If you are going to understand the connection between [biological, physical and chemical] processes, you have to be measuring lots of different quantities all at the same time.

The vantage point of space allows us to make measurements that have high spatial resolution but global coverage, and make frequent measurements at a particular place but for long periods of time. We couldn't look at the Earth as an integrated system where you have to measure all these different variables and over all these different scales before the advent of the space age.

CW: What are some of the missions NASA Earth Science has in space right now?

Freilich: We're flying 16 spacecraft right now that are NASA research spacecraft. The missions span a range of large multi-instrument observatories to more focused one- or two-instrument spacecraft. We are making measurements of atmospheric chemistry and composition, we're making measurements of ocean surface variables, ocean color, sea level, sea surface temperature, waves and surface winds.

We are making measurements of atmospheric dynamical variables, temperature profiles through the atmosphere, winds through the atmosphere. We are also making a variety of measurements on a variety of scales of clouds, aerosols, terrestrial land cover, land use and atmospheric water in all of its states.

I might point out that we are also measuring sea surface salinity. So we almost have the entire water cycle covered.

CW: You said you were excited for this year. What missions are you looking forward to?

Freilich: To say that we are excited is probably understating it. In 2014 we will be making at least four and possibly five launches of new Earth science instruments and spacecraft from NASA. The first one is going to be on the 28th of February [the launch will be from Japan and will occur around 1 p.m. EST Feb. 27], joint with JAXA, the Japanese space agency, who will launch GPM, the Global Precipitation Measurement, to make precision global rapid measurements of precipitation.

We've never actually had accurate measurements of precipitation over the globe. And this will substantially increase our ability to understand the atmospheric part of the total water cycle.

CW: What are the practical applications of that measurement?

Freilich: There's a suite of applications that support meteorological prediction. Being able to measure atmospheric liquid water and droplet sizes and precipitation rates will allow far better predictions of tropical cyclones and hurricanes and severe weather events of that ilk.

And then there's a variety of applications which have to do with things like natural hazard prediction and landslide potential that require that you know how much rain is coming down. Not to mention agricultural issues having to do with where is it raining and where is it drought. So it's actually an exceedingly broad mission.

ClimateWire: And what about the other upcoming missions?

Freilich: The second one will be the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) to do global high-quality measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide. That's scheduled for launch on July 1 from Vandenberg Air Force Base [in California]. OCO-2 is the replacement mission for OCO-1, which suffered launch vehicle failure in 2009.

The third mission that will launch will be RapidScat, which is an instrument that we'll be launching to the International Space Station to continue our multidecadal time series of precision measurements of surface wind speed and direction over the ocean. [RapidScat is currently scheduled for launch June 6, before OCO-2.]

Finally, in November, we'll be launching the Soil Moisture Active Passive mission (SMAP) from Vandenberg to make global measurements of soil moisture with high spatial resolution and freeze-thaw cycling at high latitudes.

Also, possibly in 2014, certainly by 2015, we will be launching the Clouds-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) instrument, also to the International Space Station. That instrument will be making precision measurements of atmospheric aerosols using a laser.

CW: There seems to be a push to move from big, expensive satellite missions to smaller, more nimble approaches to satellites. One example I can think of is the Venture class missions you have developed in the Earth Science Division, which set a budget cap, a time limit and a science goal to see if a team led by an outside principal investigator can meet those objectives. Are there other things NASA Earth Science Division is doing to explore alternative ways of approaching satellite missions?

Freilich: We are investigating different approaches, both programmatically and technically. The Venture class is truly a set of experiments to see whether principal-investigator-led, cost- and schedule-constrained missions can indeed do significant and sustained observations, and so far it has been wildly successful. We are working closely with industry; we always work closely with industry. Mission approaches such as hosted payloads are ways of interacting with industry even more closely, building on satellite infrastructure that industry is flying for other reasons, like communications satellites.

CW: There have been a lot of cutbacks and budget pressures on agencies in recent years. Is this having any effect on your missions?

Freilich: People talk about the budget pressures, and there are budget pressures. But this is a program which is moving forward and which is launching and making scientific discoveries even in the face of budgetary fluctuations. We are not putting anything on hold. Thirty-eight percent of our budget actually goes to nonflight activities that redeem the investment in the flight missions. It's going to be an exciting year coming up and an exciting rest of the decade.

CW: Why should the average U.S. citizen care about NASA Earth Science?

Freilich: We are all impacted by the Earth. It happens to be the only planet that humans are on at the moment. The information we are getting has the ability to impact, in a positive way, the lives of everybody in the nation and everybody in the world, be it from weather predictions to natural hazard responses to understanding agricultural trends to being able to predict the evolution of our environment. And it's the space-born measurements of the Earth as a system that allow us to make accurate predictions that way.

What I say is that climate change puts a tremendous responsibility on all of us as humans because we are the only species that can change what we are doing today based on predictions of what we think the world is going to be like generations into the future. No other species has that capacity. We do.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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