What NASA Earth Missions are on the Chopping Block? – PACE, CLARREO, OCO-3, and DSCOVR

March 17, 2017 | 3:23 pm
Brenda Ekwurzel
Senior Climate Scientist, Director of Climate Science

The President’s 2018 Budget, released March 16, 2017, ‘terminates’ NASA Earth science missions PACE, CLARREO Pathfinder, OCO-3 and DSCOVR Earth viewing instruments.  What would we lose if these NASA missions were not continued through the appropriations process and eventually the President’s signature for the 2018 fiscal year?  Safeguards to avoid eating toxic shellfish, reduce aviation disruptions and take precautions for unhealthy air quality, to name a few.  Let’s tease apart the alphabet soup of NASA missions and take a brief look at a few of their potential benefits.

PACE: Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem

Shellfish Toxin Closure Sign - Photo: NOAA

PACE Mission could provide more advanced warning for harmful algal blooms that can lead to toxins in shellfish. Taking counter measures can keep our shellfish supply safe for people to eat. Photo: NOAA

The PACE Mission, if allowed to continue, would be able to discern specific species of tiny ocean organisms (phytoplankton) to such a degree that more advanced warming systems for harmful algal blooms would help safeguard our shellfish supply.  Products that would provide improved quality and earlier (i.e. seasonal and inter-annual) data on the evolution of harmful algal blooms allows counter measures to be put into place by the commercial shellfish industry. This could help reduce cases of illness or even death from eating toxic shellfish.

Remember the Iceland volcanic ash event in 2010?  It caused the largest disruption to European air traffic since World War II. Improved aviation safety would be another benefit if the PACE mission were to continue.  If an airplane were to encounter volcanic ash, it could fuse onto the blades of typical engines and lead to possible engine failure.  PACE would be able to discern the difference between water and ice of clouds and volcanic ash, therefore avoiding this risk.

The superior measurements from PACE mission would exceed those of prior satellites and provide information on harmful algal blooms and volcanic ash eruptions. It would also provide observations that support commercial fisheries, air quality (particulate matter PM2.5) data in places without ground measurements, track oil spills and more.  Check out this quantum leap in measurement capabilities of PACE compared with prior missions.

 CLARREO: The Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory

PACE spectrum measurements compared to prior current or prior missions. Source NASA

Advances that would occur with the PACE mission compared to prior measurement capabilities ranging from short-wave infrared through the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. Photo: NASA

The President’s budget proposes eliminating the CLARREO Pathfinder, which is planned to be installed on the International Space Station to test some of the instruments for the full CLARREO mission.  It is hard to tell if this budget proposes terminating the Pathfinder portion of the full CLARREO mission or if this means termination of the full mission.  We do know that testing sensors for satellites on airplanes or low-Earth orbit helps ensure that NASA launches satellites with the most advanced instruments that can perform flawlessly during operational life.


CLARREO Pathfinder Mission. Source: NASA

Proposed CLARREO Pathfinder to be installed on the International Space Station (ISS). Photo: NASA

This would be worthwhile as the full CLARREO Mission would provide “unambiguous climate change measurements with an unprecedented level of accuracyallowing for earlier and better informed decisions with an estimated economic benefit worth trillions over the next 40 to 60 years.  The types of measurements available on the full CLARREO mission would be: net cloud feedback, temperature response and lapse rate feedback, water vapor response and feedback, aerosol direct radiative forcing, snow and ice albedo feedback, land albedo change and radiative forcing and vegetation index change.

OCO-3: The Orbiting Carbon Observatory – 3

Proposed Orbiting Carbon Observatory – 3 (OCO-3) to measure CO2 in the atmosphere. Photo: NASA

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory – 3 (OCO-3) would measure with high precision and high resolution carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.  The plan is to install OCO-3 on the International Space Station.  This would follow the OCO-2, which was launched in part to better understand CO2 sources and processes that take CO2 out of the atmosphere.  We need to know if natural sinks for CO2 are keeping pace with emissions or slowing down.

DSCOVR: Deep Space Climate Observatory

The sun illuminates the far side of the moon. Credits: NASA/NOAA

The sun illuminates the far side of the moon as it crossed between the DSCOVR spacecraft’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera and telescope, and the Earth. Photo: NASA/NOAA https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/from-a-million-miles-away-nasa-camera-shows-moon-crossing-face-of-earth

The projected end of mission life for the DSCOVR satellite is fiscal year 2022.  If the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera EPIC is included in the President’s budget proposal that “terminates … DSCOVR Earth-viewing instruments” then images such as this may no longer be collected.

It shows the far side of the moon captured by the EPIC camera looking toward Earth aboard DISCOVR.  The satellite is in deep space monitoring space weather so that spacecraft and electrical grid operators have time to prepare.

I have a hunch that many citizens of Earth would not want to terminate these particular NASA Earth missions.  It is time for members of Congress to learn more about these missions and the reactions of their constituents.







Posted in: Climate Change

Tags: Budget, CO2, NASA, satellites

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Brenda Ekwurzel ensures that program analyses reflect robust and relevant climate science, and researches the influence of major carbon producers on rising global average temperatures and sea level. Dr. Ekwurzel is a co-author of the fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) Volume II. She presents frequently to a range of audiences on climate science, educating the public on practical, achievable solutions for climate change.