Two satellites, ACRIMSAT and SORCE, observe variations in the sun’s radiation. Scientists theorize that as much as 25 percent of Earth’s climate change may be solar in origin and even small changes in the sun’s output can cause significant climatological alterations. Built during NASA’s “faster, better, cheaper” phase, ACRIMSAT has been in orbit since 1999, with a total lifetime mission cost of less than $30 million. In 2005, the experiment noticed a drastic drop in solar irradiance levels caused by Venus’ 2004 transit between the Earth and sun, a decrease equal to all energy used by humans in a single year. SORCE was launched in 2005 and data from the satellite has been used to estimate past and future solar behavior and climate response. This image shows an artist conception of the ACRIMSAT. (NASA/JPL)
While roughly 22 satellite or satellite systems run by NASA, NOAA, and the USGS are currently in orbit, that number could drop to only six by 2020. Of the 18 missions recommended in the original 2007 report, only two have specific launch dates.
The Laser Geodynamics Satellites (LAGEOS) bounce laser beams off different points of the Earth and measure their separations to better than an inch in a thousand miles. LAGEOS 1, launched in 1976, and LAGEOS 2, deployed in 1992, have been used to determine tectonic plate movement and continental drift as well as measure the exact shape of the Earth. They have also determined with 99 percent accuracy the frame-dragging effect from the Earth’s gravitational field predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
Earth-observing satellites have completely changed our understanding of our planet and ourselves. But the ability of U.S. scientists to track tornadoes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and climate change from space is now in a steep decline.
One of the most useful and impressive instruments aboard Aqua is the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, which measures visible and infrared radiation, and produces truly amazing, incredibly beautiful images of Earth. We’ve chosen some of our favorite MODIS images for this gallery in celebration of a decade of work. With funding for Earth-observing satellites on the decline, let’s hope Aqua keeps going for 10 more years.
The Aqua satellite studies water. While this may not sound particularly exciting, data about precipitation, evaporation, and water cycling on Earth are crucial to understanding climate change. Launched in 2002, Aqua produces about 89 Gigabytes of data per day, including information on aerosols, vegetation cover on land, phytoplankton in the ocean, and air, land, and water temperatures. Carbon monoxide pollution rises from burning in the Amazon rainforest as well as forest fires in sub-Saharan Africa in this image. (AIRS Science Team at NASA/JPL)
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