NASA To Launch Four Earth Science Sats in Next Two Years

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SAN FRANCISCO — NASA is preparing to embark on what it deems an aggressive campaign to revitalize its aging constellation of Earth science satellites. “It’s going to be a busy couple of years, and frankly, a busy decade,” said Michael Freilich, director of the Earth Science Division at NASA headquarters in Washington.

Within two years, NASA plans to launch four Earth science satellites and send to the international space station an additional instrument that spent nine years in storage at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. The Landsat Data Continuity Mission is slated to launch Feb. 11 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. On Feb. 14, 2014, a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries-built H-2A rocket is expected to loft into orbit the Global Precipitation Mission, a joint effort of NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to monitor snow and rainfall. On July 1, 2014, NASA plans to use a Delta 2 rocket to fly the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) 2, a replica of the satellite lost in February 2009 during an Orbital Sciences Corp. Taurus XL rocket failure. On Oct. 31, 2014, NASA plans to launch the Soil Moisture Active-Passive satellite to shed light on regional and global water cycles.

In addition, the space agency plans to send Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment 3, or SAGE 3, on an August 2014 Space Exploration Technologies Falcon 9 flight to the international space station, where the sensor will measure ozone, water vapor and aerosols in the atmosphere, Freilich said Dec. 6 during a town hall meeting at the American Geophysical Union conference here. NASA originally planned to mount SAGE 3 on the station’s exterior in 2005.

“These five missions will be launched by Oct. 31, 2013,” Freilich said. “This is pretty amazing.”

Although NASA needs congressional support to carry out its Earth science programs, Freilich said he is “a little more than cautiously optimistic” that the space agency will receive adequate funding. The 2012 budget Congress allocated for NASA’s Earth science program largely mirrored the White House budget request. Congress has yet to approve a 2013 budget for the space agency, but Freilich said he expects his division’s funding to remain near its 2012 level as requested.

“We have reached stability in terms of the scope and size of the Earth science program,” Freilich said. “This stability is good. We can continue the program we laid out in 2012.”

That program includes seven additional missions scheduled to fly before 2020 including: ICESat 2; Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-on; the U.S.-French Surface Water Ocean Topography mission; and OCO-3, an effort to mount an OCO instrument on the space station to identify places on Earth where carbon dioxide is either produced or stored.

NASA also plans to launch missions as part of its Earth science Venture class program of low-cost, scientist-led projects. The first is Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System. “This is a very innovative mission to use reflected GPS signals from the ocean surface measured by a constellation of microsatellites to make frequent measurements and wind speed in the rapidly evolving, extreme conditions of eyewalls of hurricanes and tropical storms,” Freilich said.

In November, NASA selected a Venture-class instrument, Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution, an ultraviolet-visible spectrometer, to send into orbit as a hosted payload on a geostationary satellite. “This is our pathfinder for making science instruments that will fly on geostationary satellites, likely commercial satellites,” Freilich said.

Rounding out the seven missions scheduled to launch by 2020 is Pre-Aerosol, Clouds, and Ocean Ecosystem, a satellite designed to make global ocean color measurements.

“All those missions are fully funded in the president’s 2013 budget and all are moving forward,” Freilich said.

In previous years, Earth science program officials have voiced concern about the high cost of sending satellites into orbit. “We have moved beyond the launch vehicle issues,” Freilich said. “All the missions have launch vehicles associated with them that are funded.”

Since the first OCO mission and the Glory climate-monitoring spacecraft were destroyed by Taurus XL rocket failures in 2009 and 2011 respectively, NASA officials have waged a concerted effort to identify new launch options. Working with commercial launch providers, international space agencies and the U.S. Air Force, the space agency has found cost-effective space transportation with acceptable levels of risk for its upcoming Earth science missions, Freilich said.

One of those options is United Launch Alliance’s Delta 2. Gaining access to additional Delta 2 rockets “was a miracle,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for science. Since the mid-1990s, NASA has relied heavily on Delta 2 rockets to send science payloads into orbit. When the U.S. Air Force decided to stop flying Delta 2s in 2009 and rely instead on Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, space agency officials determined that NASA alone could not afford to keep the production line running. When that production line stopped, United Launch Alliance had five remaining rockets.

NASA announced plans in July to claim three of those launch vehicles for Soil Moisture Active-Passive, OCO-2 and the first NASA-U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Joint Polar Satellite System, a spacecraft designed to provide weather and climate observations.