Aerospace Support to Global Climate Research

Aerospace Support to Global Climate Research

First published Summer 2011, Crosslink® magazine.


In addition to its primary mission to support defense and intelligence space system development, The Aerospace Corporation supports civil and commercial space activities, many of which involve global climate research. Most notable is the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Landsat program. Initially launched in 1972, the first Landsat missions were technology demonstrators that collected imagery and for the first time allowed global monitoring of the environment. Since then, Landsat satellites have continuously observed Earth.

In 1992, the Land Remote Sensing Act directed the federal government to begin Landsat 7 as a multiagency effort that involved the Air Force, NASA, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and the USGS, among others. Aerospace first supported USGS with the Landsat 7 development project and with monitoring flight operations for the Landsat 5 mission. Today, it continues to provide daily support to USGS for these missions, and technical advice and leadership for the ongoing acquisition of the Landsat 8 data continuity mission. Aerospace is also participating in the USGS preformulation of a Landsat 9 acquisition project. Aerospace has been a major contributor to the lasting success and impact of the Landsat program, supporting flight operations management, investigating subsystem anomalies, and coordinating the numerous international ground stations that receive Landsat data on a daily basis.

At NASA, Aerospace has supported systems acquisition for missions such as ICESat (Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite), which measured Earth’s ice thickness and cloud property before its mission ended in 2010. Aerospace also supported NASA’s Distributed Active Archive Centers, ground-based systems that process, archive, document, and distribute data from NASA’s past and current research satellites and field programs. Aerospace’s architecture studies and support of major system acquisitions led to faster delivery of more accurately calibrated products to atmospheric and land scientists around the world. Aerospace also supports systems acquisition for NOAA’s weather and environmental satellites GOES (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) and POES (Polar Operational Environmental Satellite). NASA is developing and plans to launch the NPOESS (National Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite System) preparatory mission in 2011. Aerospace is supporting this mission, particularly in the areas of integration, testing, calibration, and validation for the sensors. The joint NOAA/Air Force NPOESS has been restructured into two separate missions with NOAA responsible for the Joint Polar Satellite System and the DOD responsible for the Defense Weather Satellite System. Aerospace will assist in the development of both of these systems.

The NASA Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with assistance from Aerospace is scheduled to launch in 2011. This mission will measure Earth’s soil moisture and freeze/thaw parameters with much higher accuracy than ever before and thus aid the hydrology, climate, meteorological, and environmental communities.

Looking to the future, Aerospace will continue to support NASA’s Earth Science Technology Office as it seeks new technologies to sense, monitor, and process Earth science data that will one day help define and improve the models that describe Earth’s processes and any anthropogenic impacts. Aerospace technical experts annually review more than 100 technology projects in this arena, and evaluate a corresponding number of new proposals dedicated to improving Earth sensing instruments and information technologies.

—Frank Donivan and Steve Covington

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