Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
NASA's twin GRACE satellites have been used since 2002 to compile data on the amount of ground water in California's San Joaquin Valley, shown above. New funding may soon allow NASA to replace GRACE.
NASA's twin GRACE satellites have been used since 2002 to compile data on the amount of ground water in California's San Joaquin Valley, shown above. New funding may soon allow NASA to replace GRACE. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
NASA, the agency known for exploring space, will be spending a lot more time studying Earth in the next few years.
The Obama administration has proposed a budget for NASA that includes billions of dollars for satellites and other tools to help scientists investigate Earth-bound problems, especially climate change.
That represents a major turnaround for NASA's Earth Science Division, which had been allowed to languish during much of the 2000s.
Back then, the division had so little money it wasn't able to replace aging satellites that monitor things such as polar ice, coastal wetlands, ocean temperatures and chemicals in the atmosphere.
New Administration, New Priorities
But things have changed dramatically since the arrival of the Obama administration, says Edward Weiler, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
"This administration has a clear priority for science in general and Earth science in specific," he says.
And now the White House has unveiled plans to give NASA's Earth science programs $2.4 billion in new money over the next five years. That's an increase of more than 60 percent.
Much of the new money will be spent trying to reinvigorate efforts to determine how fast the Earth's climate is changing, Weiler says.
"We've got to measure how fast the ice is being depleted, how fast carbon dioxide is being added to the atmosphere as opposed to being taken out of it," he says.
Unlocking Atmospheric Mysteries
Scientists think carbon dioxide from sources like cars and power plants is the most important contributor to global warming. But they still don't know much about what happens to carbon dioxide once it gets into the atmosphere, says Michael Freilich, director of NASA's Earth Science Division.
This illustration shows the Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite, which ended its mission with a splash into the ocean near Antarctica in February 2009. NASA plans to use part of the proposed new funding to replace this satellite.
This illustration shows the Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite, which ended its mission with a splash into the ocean near Antarctica in February 2009. NASA plans to use part of the proposed new funding to replace this satellite. AP/NASA
"In order to figure out where it's going, how it's being exchanged between the atmosphere and the ocean, and the atmosphere and the land, you have to make a whole variety of measurements," Freilich says.
The extra funding will help scientists get those measurements. One chunk is paying for a new Orbiting Carbon Observatory to replace the original, which crashed into the ocean last year just after it was launched.
The new funding will also allow NASA to replace twin satellites called GRACE that have been making detailed measurements of the Earth's gravity field since 2002.
That may sound like something only science wonks would care about. But GRACE has proved to have many more practical applications than anyone expected, Weiler says.
For example, he says, GRACE has been used to collect data on gravitational fields to measure the amount of ground water in California's San Joaquin Valley, an important agricultural resource. And the measurements are showing that "ground water is disappearing more quickly than it's being replenished," Weiler says.
Scientists say global warming may be contributing to this loss of water by changing rainfall patterns in the western U.S.
The proposed NASA budget still needs approval from Congress. But NASA officials say lawmakers seem to like the space agency's new focus on the Earth.