How are human beings affecting Earth's environment? We know that there are 5 billion people on the planet now, and population is expected to increase by more than half during the next 30 years. As the population grows and economic activity expands, we increase our ability to cause global scale changes in the environment.
NASA's Mission to Planet Earth uses the same technology and spirit of space exploration to study our home planet in an effort to observe and analyze the cumulative consequences of potential global climate change. It is only from space that we can see "the big picture" that will give us the proper perspective to help piece together all the parts of Earth's environment -- air, water, land and life -- and solve the puzzle of how these elements work together to make life possible.
At the center of Mission to Planet Earth is an ambitious program called the Earth Observing System -- a series of satellites that will be launched in the late 1990s and early 21st century to provide continuous observations of global climate change.
The first Earth Observing System satellite, scheduled to be launched in 1998, is called EOS AM-1. The AM part of its name refers to the time of day the satellite crosses the equator. There are two JPL instruments on this platform that are designed to measure the amount of radiation that is absorbed and reflected by Earth's surface and atmosphere:
The Multi-Angle Imaging Spectro Radiometer (MISR) is built by JPL; The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) is provided by the Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry with scientific support provided by JPL.
Both these instruments will help scientists study clouds, volcanoes, and how energy, carbon and water are exchanged between the air-land and the air-sea.
The second series of Earth Observing System platforms begins with EOS PM-1, scheduled to be launched in the year 2000. This satellite will cross the equator in the afternoon, an orbit designed to enhance meteorological data collection. There are six instruments on this satellite, and one of the those is provided by JPL:
AIRS's simultaneous observations of the atmosphere and clouds will help scientists understand the role clouds play in modulating the greenhouse effect. These data will help improve the computer models that scientists use to track Earth's changing environment.
In addition, JPL Earth-observing instruments fly on a variety of other satellites. The ocean wind measuring NASA Scatterometer (NSCAT) was launched in August 1996 on a Japanese satellite. JPL manages a U.S/French satellite called TOPEX/Poseidon that is currently making the first precise measurements of global sea height.
Scientists are also using a variety of spaceborne and airborne imaging radars to study how the Earth's global environment is changing. The Spaceborne Imaging Radar C/X-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar flew twice on the space shuttle Endeavour in 1994. Ongoing airborne campaigns use the AIRSAR/TOSPAR instrument and future missions will involve LightSAR and GeoSAR. The SIR-C/X-SAR hardware will fly again later this decade as part of the Shuttle Radar Topographic Mapper that will make three-dimensional maps of nearly 80 percent of the Earth's land surface.
Other key sites include:
Earthquake research with the use of the Global Positioning System
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