Archive for the ‘NASA News’ Category

Satellites as Superheroes

November 2nd, 2015 by Adam Voiland


Usually, comic book heroes wear tight pants and have superhuman strength. In the new educational manga Raindrop Tales from NASA, one of the heroes (Mizu-chan) evaporates water with her hair. The other (GPM) rides on a 3,900-kilogram satellite that observes rain and snow.

Look carefully at the art in the screenshots above, and you will find some telling details. Mizu-chan wears a flowing blue dress that symbolizes the many forms of water (snow, ice, rain, hail, water vapor, fresh water, salt water, etc.) found on Earth. Notice how her hemline is surrounded by clouds. Depending on her mood, the clouds form different types of precipitation.

GPM—named after the Global Precipitation Measurement mission—has blond hair and wears a kimono with a rain pattern on one half and a snow pattern on the other. Though he rides atop the GPM Core Observatory, that does not mean he has free reign over the satellite. Read the full comic to find out how GPM deals with meddlesome managers on the ground and what happens when he meets a diverse cast of characters in space.

The new manga is the culmination of an anime challenge sponsored by GPM’s education and outreach team. They made a call to artists from around the world to develop anime-themed comic book characters that could be used to teach students about the mission. Yuki Kiriga of Tokyo developed the GPM character; Sabrynne Buchholz of Colorado developed Mizu-chan. See some of their winning artwork below.


After finishing the manga, you may want to learn more about water. If so, try this story about the water cycle. “Viewed from space, one of the most striking features of our home planet is the water, in both liquid and frozen forms, that covers approximately 75 percent of the Earth’s surface,” the story begins.


The vast majority (about 96.5 percent) of that water, of course, fills the oceans. As for the rest of it, approximately 1.7 percent of Earth’s water is stored in the polar icecaps, glaciers, and permanent snow; another 1.7 percent is stored in groundwater, lakes, rivers, streams, and soil.

Only .001 percent of the water on Earth exists as water vapor in the atmosphere. But that tiny fraction is what GPM sees the best. To get a sense of the data GPM is collecting on a routine basis, see this story about the devastating rains that struck South Carolina in October 2015.



Some Insight on the Color of the Ocean

September 28th, 2015 by Mike Carlowicz

For nearly 20 years, Jim Acker, a contract support scientist at the NASA Goddard Earth Science Data and Information Services Center (GES DISC), has helped oceanographers compile and study data collected by satellites. A chemical oceanographer by training, he has been involved in the study of ocean color as viewed from space. He recently wrote a book for NASA about the history of the subject. He is also scheduled to deliver the NASA Goddard Science Colloquium on September 30 at 3:30 p.m. His talk is entitled: “Rise of the Machines: Computational Power and the History of NASA’s Ocean Color Missions.” He gave us a preview of the book and the talk this week.

NASA Earth Observatory: Most of us think of the ocean as blue; in some places, it looks green. So what do scientists mean when they refer to “ocean color?”


Jim Acker: Well, it’s blue and green and brown, and occasionally a few other related hues. Ocean color refers to the science of using satellite sensors to measure the light emanating from the ocean and determining what is in the water based on those light measurements. The main things that change the color of the ocean are phytoplankton—the floating plants at the base of the ocean food chain—dissolved colored substances, and different kinds of sediments.

EO: What are some of the things we have learned by looking at the ocean from satellites?

Acker: One of the main things done with global observations has been estimating how much carbon is produced by the growth of phytoplankton. Ocean color observations have shown how much this can vary, particularly with events like El Niño or La Niña in the Pacific Ocean.

The satellite view also can show how much variation there is over relatively short distances. A ship could be sitting in nice clear water, and just a few tens of kilometers away there could be a strong phytoplankton bloom that they would never know about without observations from space.


The observations also have helped understand phytoplankton patterns in hard-to-reach places like the polar seas and the Red Sea or Arabian Sea. The interaction of the land and ocean, with weather patterns and river inflows, has also been better observed.

EO: Have there been any big surprises?

Acker: Definitely. One of the biggest surprises from the Coastal Zone Color Scanner, the first NASA ocean color mission, was truly how much the ocean varied over small distances. Where oceanographers used to draw simple lines, they realized there were swirls and spirals and curlicues and loops and jets and rings. It was much more complicated.

Another surprise when SeaWiFS and MODIS started making global observations was how cloudy it is over the oceans.  It takes really impressive data processing to get accurate values because of that.


And because the satellites make continuous observations, they have observed many different features that weren’t where we expected them to be or they happened more often than we thought.

EO: What provoked you to write a book?

Acker: NASA wanted to have some histories of NASA science, and I wanted to tell the history of ocean color because it’s been so successful. It’s like a well-trained, elite athlete:  they make what they do look easy, though a lot of hard effort and training makes that possible.


Ocean color measurements are very difficult to make, but because the missions have been so successful, the public and even most scientists have just seen the beautiful results and have not realized the dedicated, behind-the-scenes work that made them possible. It isn’t just about seeing images from space on a computer monitor. To be sure the data is accurate, there have been some true high-seas adventures. I was able to get a lot of real-life experiences from the scientists and engineers into the book.

EO: What is your favorite book about science?  And your favorite writer?

Acker: My favorite book that was sort of about science was The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester; I also enjoyed his book about the eruption of Krakatoa. My favorite writers are Pat Conroy and J.R.R. Tolkien. The late Stephen Jay Gould wrote a lot of things about science I liked.  And I have to mention that I just read Andy Weir’s The Martian and was quite impressed. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie.



This is a cross-post from Laura Rocchio and our colleagues at NASA’s Landsat Science Team.

The European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2A successfully launched into orbit on June 22, 2015, from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, aboard a Vega rocket (10:52 p.m. local time; 01:52 GMT).

The Sentinel-2A satellite has spectral bands similar to Landsat 8’s (excluding the thermal bands of Landsat 8’s Thermal Infrared Sensor). The placement of the Sentinel-2A bands, as compared to Landsat 8 and Landsat 7 bands, can be seen in the graphic below.


The main visible and near-infrared Sentinel-2A bands have a spatial resolution of 10 meters, while its “red-edge” (red and near-infrared bands)—specifically designed to monitor vegetation—along with its two shortwave infrared bands have a 20-meter spatial resolution, and its coastal/aerosol, water vapor, and cirrus bands have a 60-meter spatial resolution.

During the development of Landsat 8 and Sentinel-2A, calibration scientists from both projects worked together to cross-calibrate the sensors. Many scientists and researchers are looking forward to collectively using data from Landsat 8 and Sentinel-2A.

Sentinel-2A alone provides 10-day repeat coverage of Earth’s land areas. In combination with the 8-day coverage from Landsat 7 and 8 combined, users can look forward to better-than-weekly coverage at moderate resolution. Repeat coverage capabilities will further increase with the planned launch of a second Sentinel-2 satellite (Sentinel-2B) in 2016.

According to ESA, “As well as monitoring plant growth, Sentinel-2 will be used to map changes in land cover and to monitor the world’s forests. It will also provide information on pollution in lakes and coastal waters. Images of floods, volcanic eruptions and landslides will contribute to disaster mapping and helping humanitarian relief efforts.”

After the successful Sentinel-2A launch, Dr. Garik Gutman, the NASA Land Use / Land Cover Change program manager, said, “We are looking forward to new exciting data to complement Landsat observations and to collaborative research—especially because ESA followed USGS in its open data policy.” This sentiment is echoed by many in the Landsat community.

Read more about Sentinel 2A by clicking here

The following is a statement from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on the House of Representatives’ NASA authorization bill:

“The NASA authorization bill making its way through the House of Representatives guts our Earth science program and threatens to set back generations worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate, and our ability to prepare for and respond to earthquakes, droughts, and storm events.

NASA leads the world in the exploration of and study of planets, and none is more important than the one on which we live.

In addition, the bill underfunds the critical space technologies that the nation will need to lead in space, including on our journey to Mars.”

Tournament Earth 2015 Champion

April 10th, 2015 by Adam Voiland


Tournament Earth 2015 has come to a dramatic end. Despite some tough match ups, the colorful faults of Xinjiang fought off a bolt of lightning (as seen from the International Space Station), taking the #2 seed from the art division all the way to the championship.

This year’s victory was a first for an image from a Landsat satellite. In 2014, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on Terra captured the winning shot. In 2013, it was the Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on the Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite. This was also the first year that an image not associated with the Canary Islands won the tournament.

As noted in our original Image of the Day, Piqiang Fault is a northwest trending strike-slip fault that runs roughly perpendicular to a series of thrust faults. The thrust faults are marked by the colorful southeast-to-northeast running ridges. The ridges are offset by about 3 kilometers (2 miles) due to the strike-slip fault. For another perspective on the faults, see how they look in the near infrared and shortwave infrared (below).  In the near infrared, variations in mineral content, vegetation, and water cause the patterns of light and dark. Below that, comparing the differences between 3 shortwave infrared bands highlights the mineral geology surrounding the fault.



Though obvious from above, the Piqiang Fault can be a challenge to see from the ground. “You can’t actually see the fault unless you hike into the mountains,” explained Sebastian Turner, a geologist who has conducted studies in the area. If you would like to learn more about the geology of this area, I would recommend looking through Turner’s study or this one by Mark Allen.

Thank you for voting!

A Century Studying Flight

March 3rd, 2015 by Mike Carlowicz

“Today marks a special anniversary for the NASA family,” Administrator Charles Bolden wrote in a letter to NASA employees.

On March 3, 1915, the U.S. Congress created the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the organization from which NASA was later created in 1958. Bolden notes that NACA was initially formed because political leaders at the time were concerned that the United States was losing its edge in aviation technology to Europe, where World War 1 was raging.


One of NACA’s missions was to “supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution.” Research by NACA funded engineers led to fundamental advances in aeronautics that enabled victory in World War II, spawned a world-leading civil aviation manufacturing industry, propelled supersonic flight, supported national security, and laid the foundation for modern air travel and the Space Age. Many names we know from the early days of space exploration got their start at the NACA – including Robert Gilruth, Hugh Dryden, Chris Kraft, Gene Kranz and Neil Armstrong, among many others. A number of the laboratories and wind tunnels built in the NACA era are still at work today.

You can learn more about NACA by visiting this page on the main NASA web site. And you can watch pieces of the centennial symposium here.

Why So Many Global Temperature Records?

January 21st, 2015 by Adam Voiland


If you follow Earth and climate science closely, you may have noticed that the media is abuzz every December and January with stories about how the past year ranked in terms of global temperatures. Was this the hottest year on record? In fact, it was. The Japanese Meteorological Agency released data on January 5, 2015, that showed 2014 was the warmest year on its record. NASA and NOAA made a similar announcement on January 16. The UK Met Office, which maintains the fourth major global temperature record, ranked 2014 as tied with 2010 for being the hottest year on record on January 26.

Astute readers then ask a deeper question: why do different institutions come up with slightly different numbers for the same planet? Although all four science institutions have strong similarities in how they track and analyze temperatures, there are subtle differences. As shown in the chart above, the NASA record tends to run slightly higher than the Japanese record, while the Met Office and NOAA records are usually in the middle.

There are good reasons for these differences, small as they are. Getting an accurate measurement of air temperature across the entire planet is not simple. Ideally, scientists would like to have thousands of standardized weather stations spaced evenly all around Earth’s surface. The trouble is that while there are plenty of weather stations on land, there are some pretty big gaps over the oceans, the polar regions, and even parts of Africa and South America.

The four research groups mentioned above deal with those gaps in slightly different ways. The Japanese group leaves areas without plenty of temperature stations out of their analysis, so its analysis covers about 85 percent of the globe. The Met Office makes similar choices, meaning its record covers about 86 percent of Earth’s surface. NOAA takes a different approach to the gaps, using nearby stations to interpolate temperatures in some areas that lack stations, giving the NOAA analysis 93 percent coverage of the globe. The group at NASA interpolates even more aggressively—areas with gaps are interpolated from the nearest station up to 1,200 kilometers away—and offers 99 percent coverage.

See the chart below to get a sense of where the gaps are in the various records. Areas not included in the analysis are shown in gray. JMA is Japan Meteorological Agency data, GISTEMP is the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies data, HadCrut4 is the Met Office data, UAH is a satellite-based record maintained by the University of Alabama Huntsville (more on that below), NCDC is the NOAA data, and NCEP/NCAR is a reanalysis of weather model data from the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

If you’re a real data hound, you may have heard about other institutions that maintain global temperature records. In the last few years, a group at UC Berkeley — a group that was initially skeptical of the findings of the other groups — developed yet another approach that involved using data from even more temperature stations (37,000 stations as opposed to the 5,000-7,000 used by the other groups). For 2014, the Berkeley group came to the same conclusion: the past year was the warmest year on record, though their analysis has 2014 in a virtual tie with 2005 and 2010.

Rather than coming up with a way to fill the gaps, a few other groups have tried using a completely different approach. A group from the University of Alabama-Huntsville maintains a record of temperatures based on microwave sounders on satellites. The satellite-based record dates back 36 years, and the University of Alabama group has ranked 2014 as the third warmest on that record, though only by a very small margin. Another research group from Remote Sensing Systems maintains a similar record based on microwave sounders on satellites, although there are a few differences in the way the Remote Sensing Systems and University of Alabama teams handle gaps in the record and correct for differences between sensors. Remote Sensing Systems has 2014 as the 6th warmest on its record.

But let’s get back to the original question: why are there so many temperature records? One of the hallmarks of good science is that observations should be independently confirmed by separate research groups using separate methods when possible. And in the case of global temperatures, that’s exactly what is happening. Despite some differences in the year-to-year rankings, the trends observed by all the groups are roughly the same. They all show warming. They all find the most recent decade to be warmer than previous decades.

You may observe some hand-wringing and contrarian arguments about how one group’s ranking is slightly different than another and about how scientists cannot agree on the “hottest year” or the temperature trend. Before you get caught up in that, know this: the difference between the hottest and the second hottest or the 10th hottest and 11th hottest year on any of these records is vanishingly small. The more carefully you look at graph at the top of this page, the more you’ll start to appreciate that the individual ranking of a given year hardly even matters. It’s the longer term trends that matter. And, as you can see in that chart, all of the records are in remarkably good agreement.

That said, if you are still interested in the minutia of how these these data sets are compiled and analyzed, as well as how they compare to one other, wade through the links below. Some of the sites will even explain how you can access the data and calculate the trends yourself.

+ UCAR’s Global Temperature Data Sets Overview and Comparison page.


+ NOAA’s Global Temperature Analysis page.

+ Met Office’s Hadley Center Temperature page.

+ Japan Meteorological Agency’s Global Average Surface Temperature Anomalies page.

+ University of Alabama Huntsville Temperature page.

+Remote Sensing Systems Climate Analysis, Upper Air Temperature, and The Recent Slowing in the Rise of Global Temperatures pages.

+ Berkley Earth’s Data Overview page.

+ Moyhu’s list of climate data portals.

+ Skeptical Science’s Comparing All the Temperature Records, The Japan Meteorological Agency Temperature Records, Satellite Measurements of the Warming in the Troposphere, GISTEMP: Cool or Uncool, and Temperature Trend Calculator posts.

+ Tamino’s comparing Temperature Data Sets post.

+NOAA/NASA 2014 Warmest Year on Record powerpoint.

+James Hansen’s Global Temperature in 2014 and 2015 update posted on his Columbia University page.

+The Carbon Brief’s How Do Scientists Measure Global Temperature?

+Yale’s A Deeper Look: 2014’s Warming Record and the Continued Trend Upwards post.

2014 Temperatures From A Regional Perspective

January 16th, 2015 by Adam Voiland

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 2.37.18 PM

NASA and NOAA announced today that 2014 brought the warmest global temperatures in the modern instrumental record. But what did the year look like on a more regional scale?

According to the Met Office, the United Kingdom experienced it warmest year since 1659. Despite the record-breaking temperatures, however, no month was extremely warm. Instead, each month (with the exception of August) was consistently warm. The UK was not alone. Eighteen other countries in Europe experienced their hottest year on record, according to Vox.

The contiguous United States, meanwhile, only experienced the 34th warmest year since 1895, according to a NOAA analysis. The Midwest and the Mississippi Valley were particularly cool, while unusually warm conditions gripped the West. California, for instance, went through its hottest year on record. Meanwhile, temperatures in Alaska were unusually warm; in Anchorage, temperatures never dropped below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. 

James Hansen, a retired NASA scientist, underscored this point in an update on his Columbia University website: “Residents of the eastern two-thirds of the United States and Canada might be surprised that 2014 was the warmest year, as they happened to reside in an area with the largest negative temperature anomaly on the planet, except for a region in Antarctica.”

According to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, 2014 was the third warmest year on record in that country. “Much of Australia experienced temperatures very much above average in 2014, with mean temperatures 0.91°C above the long-term average,” said the bureau’s assistant director of climate information services.

The map at the top of this page depicts global temperature anomalies in 2014. It does not show absolute temperatures, but instead shows how much warmer or cooler the Earth was compared to a baseline average from 1951 to 1980.  Areas that experienced unusually warm temperatures are shown in red; unusually cool temperatures are shown in blue.

NASA Earth Science in the News

December 10th, 2014 by Patrick Lynch

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the NASA Earth Science in the News column, published in the November/December issue of The Earth Observer newsletter. You can download the current issue here.

America’s Tiny Four Corners Region is an Outsized Methane Hotspot; One small spot in the U.S. Southwest is surprisingly the producer of the largest concentration of methane (CH4) gas seen across the nation. Levels of CH4 over the Four Corners region are more than triple the standard groundbased estimate of the greenhouse gas, as reported in a point study of satellite data by scientists at NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the University of Michigan. CH4 is a heat-trapping gas whose increasing quantities in the atmosphere have fueled concerns about global climate change. The methane “hotspot,” seen on the map as a small splotch—see map above—measures approximately 6475 km2 (2500 mi2) at the junction of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. For scale, the state of Arizona is about 292,668 km2 (113,000 mi2). But the area generated an annual 0.59 million metric tons of methane between 2003 and 2009—about as much CH4 as the entire coal, oil, and gas industries of the U.K. give off each year.

The Four Corners area (red) is the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions in this map showing how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003-2009 (dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan


Scientists Say Ozone Layer is Recovering; Associated Press. Earth’s protective ozone layer is beginning to recover from its previously reduced levels, largely because of the phase-out since the 1980s of certain chemicals used in refrigerants and aerosol cans, a U.N. scientific panel reported. Scientists said the development demonstrates that when the world’s peoples come together, we can counteract a brewing ecological crisis. For the first time in 35 years, scientists were able to confirm a statistically significant and sustained increase in stratospheric ozone, which shields the planet from solar radiation that causes skin cancer, crop damage, and other problems. From 2000 to 2013, ozone levels climbed 4% in the key mid-northern latitudes at about 48 km (30 mi) above Earth’s surface, said scientist Paul Newman [NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC)].

Deep Ocean Hasn’t Warmed Measurably in a Decade, Says NASA; The Weather Channel. Deep below the ocean surface, there’s a place global warming hasn’t yet reached. According to a study published on October 5, 2014, in Nature Climate Change, scientists at NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have found that over the last decade the deepest part of the world’s ocean has not warmed measurably. The scientists analyzed ocean temperatures from between 2005 and 2013 and found that below a depth of approximately 2 km (~1.2 mi)—roughly halfway to the bottom at this location—the global ocean has not warmed nearly as quickly as the top half. The scientists collected the temperature data using both satellite measurements and data from the Argo array, a network of some 3500 floating probes scattered throughout the world that measure ocean temperatures and salinity. “The sea level is still rising,” said study coauthor Josh Willis [JPL] in a news release. “We’re just trying to understand the nitty-gritty details.”

Antarctic Sea Ice Level Breaks Record, NASA Says; Sea ice surrounding Antarctica is at an all-time high, even as global temperature averages continue to climb. NASA reports that ice formation in the continent’s southern oceans peaked this year, breaking ice-measuring satellite records dating back to the late 1970s. For the first time since 1979, on September 19, 2014, Antarctic sea ice extent exceeded ~20 million km2 (~7.7 million mi2) whereas the average maximum extent between 1981 and 2010 was ~19 million km2 (~7.3 million mi2). Despite this trend, sea ice as a whole is decreasing on a global scale. Researchers say that, just like global warming, trends have different outcomes in different parts of the world; not every location with sea ice will experience ice loss or gain. “When we think about global warming we would expect intuitively that ice should also be declining in the Antarctic region as in the Arctic,” explained senior research scientist Josefino Comiso [GSFC]. “But station and satellite data currently show that the trends in surface temperatures are most positive in the Arctic, while in the Antarctic region the trends are a mixture of positive and negative trends,” he said, adding that cooling and declining sea surface temperatures could also contribute to a “more rapid advance at the ice edge.”

1934’s Dust Bowl Drought Was the Worst in a Thousand Years for U.S.; The drought of 1934 wasn’t just bad, it was the worst. That’s the finding of a reconstruction of North American drought history over the past 1000 years, done by scientists from NASA and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Their study, published in the October 17 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, concludes the drought of 1934, during the Dust Bowl years in the North American Plains, was 30% more severe than the next worst, which occurred in 1580, NASA scientists said. The scientists used tree ring records from 1000 to 2005 along with modern observations. They found that the 1934 drought extended across over 71% of western North America, compared with almost 60% during the 2012 drought. “It was the worst by a large margin,” said lead author of the study Ben Cook [NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies—Climate Scientist]. The scientists found two main reasons: a winter high-pressure system over the West Coast that blocked precipitation and spring dust storms that suppressed rainfall.

GRACE Spacecraft Changed the Way Groundwater was Measured; CBS’ 60 Minutes. Leslie Stahl hosted a segment on California’s groundwater issues. The segment described the difficulty in sampling groundwater levels until NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) spacecraft was launched. Mike Watkins [JPL—GRACE Project Scientist] described how GRACE “can tell whether an area has gained water weight or lost it.” Jay Famiglietti [University of California, Irvine] said that he thought the method was “complete nonsense” until he started examining the data, which changed his position. The broadcast noted that Famiglietti was so worried by what he saw in the data that he is working “to alert governments and academics to the problem.”

Science Cover_GRACE

Drought-induced depletion of groundwater is no longer an issue that’s out of sight, out of mind.

Research by scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, published this week in Science, describes a GPS technique used to measure drought-induced uplift of land in the western United States. The uplift measurements were used, in turn, to calculate the deficit in surface and near-surface water for the area, which they estimated for March 2014 to be 240 billion tons. That’s equivalent to a 4-inch-thick layer (10 centimeters) of water over the region, or the current annual mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet.

GPS is not the only way to measure land displacement caused by the loss of ground and surface water. Scientists have long used the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites to estimate groundwater depletion around the planet, as noted by Marcia McNutt in a related editorial.

GRACE’s achievements even graced the cover of the same issue of Science (pictured above). The image shows California’s loss of fresh water (red) from 2002 through 2014. Drought has drained the region of more than 3.6 cubic miles (15 cubic kilometers) of fresh water in each of the past three years.

The image was updated from a version that initially appeared alongside research in 2013 by James Famiglietti of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and University of California, Irvine, and Matthew Rodell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Read more to learn about how GRACE is used to view Earth’s water supplies, or how U.S. groundwater on July 7, 2014, compared to the average from 1948 to 2009.