layout University Affiliated Research Center - UC Santa Cruz - NASA Ames Research Center
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Earth Sciences

Greater understanding of global systems through research, observation, and advanced instrumentation

Current Tasks:

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Sensor Systems Development

Experimental Data Collection

Earth Sciences Research

NASA’s programs in the Earth Sciences seek to answer the questions: "how is the Earth changing?” and “what are the consequences for life on Earth?". Research is being conducted in six focus areas:

  • Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems
  • Atmospheric Composition
  • Climate Variability and Change
  • Weather
  • Earth Surface and Interior (Geology)
  • Water and Energy Cycle

Research into ecosystems and their role in the global carbon cycle is conducted through direct observation of vegetation in forests and wetlands, and also during fires. Observations are also used as inputs for ecological modeling. Atmospheric composition is studied by direct measurement and through modeling. In both cases, observations are generated in the context of top-level theory, and synthesized and developed to explain and predict the observations, including temporal and spatial variation.

To obtain the observations, which are critical to validation of theoretical work, the Earth Sciences Division conducts airborne science campaigns designed to study the Earth’s atmosphere and biosphere. Past campaigns have studied phenomena such as the Earth’s protective ozone layer, the health and extent of vegetation in wetlands and the precise extent and location of wildfires.

Much of this data collection relies on resources and expertise in airborne research, including digital imaging sensors and in-sítu instrumentation onboard aircraft. With direction from NASA Headquarters, research is performed using a suite of general aviation aircraft as well as Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) operated by other agencies or commercial providers.

Future research within Earth Sciences is expected to broaden through collaborations with university-sponsored campaigns in which NASA has a supporting role. Some examples include work for the USDA/FS, USGS, DOE, EPA and others. The success of this collaboration in obtaining support for this work is critical to the future of NASA and Ames Research Center’s Earth Sciences efforts.

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Earth Sciences Instrumentation

A primary focus of this task is to ensure that state-of-the-art sensors are available to obtain observational data of the highest possible quality. A top priority is maintenance, calibration, upgrading, and integration of a suite of existing sensors.

Research performed using various aircraft platforms requires smaller instrumentation packages, increased autonomy, and reliable command and data telemetry. In addition, there is always a demand for better resolution, faster processing, and more precise geo-location. Projects include the conception, design, fabrication, calibration, testing, and operation of state-of-the art sensors that enable Earth Sciences missions.

Primary sensors may include multispectral imaging devices and in-sítu devices for analyzing air samples (e.g., gas chromatography). Secondary devices may include ranging (e.g., LiDAR), positioning (GPS), wind speed, temperature, and other instrumentation needed to put the primary observations in a proper context. Research will also seek advancement in the precision, operating envelope, form factor and power consumption of these devices.

The new paradigm will require increasingly elevated levels of autonomy in mission management, sensor operation and data management. Since autonomy is a “longer lead time” development item, advances are also required in the areas of telemetry, improved reliability, data bandwidth and standardization.

The driving force in this research area is the need to optimize data quality for all observations made, and software development is also critical to this effort. Software components under development include:

  • Image processing software
  • Software for integrated experiment control during flight
  • Ground telemetry (two-way, not encrypted) for control of instruments mounted on UAVs, and delivery of sensor data
  • Autonomous operation of instruments

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