SAN FRANCISCO — NASA’s Earth Science Division is preparing for its busiest year in more than a decade with plans to launch three free-flying satellite missions and install two remote sensing instruments on the exterior of the international space station. 

“This is a particularly high-volume year for NASA Earth Science missions,” said Michael Freilich, NASA Earth Science Division director.

Although the launch of five missions in a single year is unusual, the pace is indicative of the increased funding NASA’s Earth Science Division has received in recent years under the Obama administration. “We have successfully transitioned from a period when Earth Science at NASA was launching a mission every couple of years to a sustained period over the next decade or more in which we are launching a couple of missions per year on average,” Freilich said in a Jan. 22 conference call with reporters. 

The $1.1 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2014 continues that strong support by providing NASA’s Earth Science Division with approximately $1.83 billion. That funding level will allow the division to continue ongoing research, technology development and Earth Science applications initiatives and to proceed with plans to launch six additional missions from 2015 to 2020, Freilich said. 

GPM Core

The first mission slated to launch in 2014 is the U.S.-Japanese Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission core observatory, which is designed to provide data to help researchers better understand Earth’s hydrologic cycle and improve weather forecasts with global precipitation maps updated nearly every four hours, Freilich said. The joint NASA-Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency mission is scheduled to launch Feb. 27 aboard a Japanese H-2A rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center into a circular orbit at an altitude of 407 kilometers with an inclination of 65 degrees relative to the equator.


On June 6, NASA plans to send to the international space station a radar scatterometer called RapidScat designed to measure wind speed and direction at the ocean’s surface. RapidScat’s data will be used immediately by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies to improve predictions of hurricane intensification, said Julie Robinson, space station chief scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. RapidScat is scheduled to launch June 6 on a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon cargo capsule from Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida.

Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2

NASA’s second Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) mission is scheduled to launch July 1 on a United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California into a polar sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 705 kilometers with an inclination of 98.2 degrees relative to the equator. The OCO-2 mission is designed to pinpoint locations on Earth where high concentrations of carbon dioxide are being emitted into the atmosphere or accumulated and stored. Soon after NASA’s first Orbiting Carbon Observatory mission was destroyed in a 2009 launch failure, the space agency made plans to rebuild the spacecraft and equip it with three high-resolution spectrometers that are nearly identical to the ones lost.  

Cloud-Aerosol Transport System

The Earth Science Division’s fourth planned mission for 2014 is the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS), a lidar designed to be installed on the space station to provide detailed data on the structure and height of clouds as well as pollution, dust, smoke and particles in the atmosphere. The CATS mission also will help NASA validate lidar technology, which has been employed in airborne applications but never in orbit, Robinson said. CATS is scheduled to travel to the space station on SpaceX’s Sept. 12 Falcon 9 flight from Cape Canaveral. 

Soil Moisture Active Passive

Finally, on Nov. 5, NASA plans to launch the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) spacecraft. SMAP will be the first launch of the highest-priority Earth Science missions identified in the National Research Council’s 2007 Earth science decadal survey. The SMAP spacecraft carries a radiometer and an L-band synthetic aperture radar to provide researchers with information on moisture in the soil, data that can be used to predict floods and monitor drought conditions. SMAP is scheduled to launch on a Delta 2 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California into a polar, sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 680 kilometers.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She is...