Karen St. Germain, NASA Earth Science Division director, showed the fleet of 23 missions in orbit during an online press briefing for the 2021 American Geophysical Union fall meeting. Current missions are shown in blue and green. Missions being developed or formulated appear orange or gold. Credit: NASA screenshot

SAN FRANCISCO – NASA’s Earth Science Division is preparing to launch four satellite missions in 2022 to provide observations of weather conditions, mineral dust, oceans and surface water.

First up is TROPICS, which stands for Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of SmallSats. Six TROPICS cubesats are scheduled to launch in March on an Astra Space rocket.

The TROPICS constellation will provide researchers with data every 60 minutes compared with every four hours for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s polar-orbiting satellites, William Blackwell, TROPICS principal investigator and associate group leader at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory, said Dec. 13 during an online press briefing for the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans.

Frequent views of evolving storms will “improve the forecast of the intensification and the tracks for where the hurricanes will go,” Blackwell said. “That will assist in disaster management and helping people get out of the way of these very severe storms.”

A TROPICS pathfinder cubesat NASA launched in June on the SpaceX Transporter-2 rideshare flight is helping mission planners confirm everything from instrument operations to communications and data processing.

Mineral Dust

Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation, or EMIT, is the second Earth Science mission on NASA’s 2022 agenda. EMIT is slated to travel to the International Space Station in May to be mounted on an external platform.

From there, EMIT will provide data “to close our gap in understanding of mineral dust heating or cooling of the Earth now and in the future,” said Robert Green, EMIT principal investigator at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In Earth’s arid land regions, strong winds loft mineral dust into the atmosphere where it can absorb or scatter radiation. Mineral dust is important to understand because it plays a role in cloud formation and snow melting. It acts as fertilizer for biological processes in oceans and tropical forests. Plus, it’s hazardous to breath and undermines visibility, Green said.

Joint Polar Satellite System-2

In September, NASA is scheduled to launch NOAA’s second Joint Polar Satellite System on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Like it’s predecessors Suomi NPP and NOAA 20, JPSS will be equipped with the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite built by Raytheon, the Ball Aerospace Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite, the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder from Northrop Grumman and the Cross-track Infrared Sounder built by L3Harris Technologies.

The JPPS-2 two satellite, which will be renamed NOAA 21 after launch, is fully integrated and undergoing testing, said Satya Kalluri, program scientist for NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System.

Watching the water cycle

NASA’s final 2022 Earth science mission, Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT), is a joint effort with the French Space Agency CNES that includes contributions from the Canadian and United Kingdom space agencies.

SWOT is a pathfinder to demonstrate a radar altimeter “to measure the elevation of water surface in two dimensions with a spatial resolution 1,000 times higher than that of a conventional altimeter,” said Lee-Leung Fu, SWOT project scientist and senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

With two radar antennas separate by a 10-meter mast, SWOT will produce detailed maps of the surface elevation of water.

“Global warming is accelerating the rate of the water cycle by increasing the atmospheric humidity,” Fu said. “Much more rapid precipitation and evaporation of water makes it difficult to assess the freshwater budget. So SWOT data will be used to make this critical assessment of fresh water availability.”

In addition, SWOT will provide “unique observations of coastal oceans, estuaries and river deltas,” Fu said.

JPL engineers and technicians have completed the SWOT payload module, which is being integrated with a satellite bus in France. SWOT is scheduled to launch in November on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg.

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...