SAN FRANCISCO — Strong support from the White House and U.S. Congress will allow NASA to lay the groundwork for a vigorous and extensive Earth science program that includes 16 major missions scheduled for launch between 2011 and 2021, an agency official said.

“What a difference a year makes,” Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, said Dec. 16 at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union here. “Last year things were a little bit dicey. This year we are moving forward rather dramatically.”

In contrast to late 2009 when NASA’s Earth Science Division faced growing demands in spite of constrained funding, the current five-year spending plan provides the division with an additional $2.4 billion over the previous budget blueprint, Freilich said. If approved by Congress, that money will allow NASA “to go from flying one mission every couple of years to flying a couple of missions per year,” he said.

NASA plans to launch three Earth science satellites in 2011: the Glory climate monitoring satellite in February, the joint U.S.-Argentina Aquarius sea-surface salinity mission in June and the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environment Satellite Preparatory Project (NPP) mission in October.

The NPP mission, which experienced delays in the past due to technical issues, is undergoing environmental testing. “All five instruments are integrated mechanically and electrically onto NPP,” Freilich said. “I’m becoming increasingly confident that an October 2011 launch date is achievable.”

The U.S. space agency also is planning to launch in December 2012 the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, which will shore up an aging land mapping fleet, followed in July 2013 by initial launch for the Global Precipitation Measurement mission, a joint effort with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency to deploy a constellation of rainfall-measuring satellites.

A second Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) is scheduled for launch in February 2013 to replace the satellite lost in a 2009 launch failure. NASA also is building a third Orbiting Carbon Observatory instrument with space parts acquired during construction of OCO-2 that will be ready to launch in 2015 on an available flight opportunity, Freilich said.

Meanwhile, the latest spending plan enables NASA to move ahead with the four missions given the highest priority in the Earth science decadal survey, the National Academy of Science’s 10-year plan for space-based observations, and to accelerate all of the missions in the second tier of that survey, Freilich said.

The first-tier missions are: the Soil Moisture Active Passive mission scheduled for launch in November 2014, the second Ice Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite mission expected to fly in October 2015, the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Laboratory set for launch in 2017 and Deformation Ecosystems Structure and Dynamics of Ice mission scheduled to launch in 2018. By launching all four missions within four years as recommended in the decadal survey, scientists will benefit from being able to merge and compare the data acquired by the various space-based instruments, Freilich said.

The tier-two missions accelerated by the current budget plan include: Active Sensing of CO2 Emissions over Nights, Days and Seasons; Aerosol-Cloud-Ecosystems; Geostationary Coastal and Air Pollution Events; Hyperspectral Infrared Imager; and Surface Water Ocean Topography, Freilich said.

Increased funding for Earth sciences also is allowing NASA to expand its Venture-class program, which funds targeted, principal investigator-led science initiatives. In 2011, NASA plans to solicit Venture-class proposals for new space-based instruments as well as unique small-satellite projects, Freilich said.

The solicitation for new instruments will offer principal investigator-led teams approximately $65 million to $95 million for a five-year program to develop new scientific instruments. “We will be doing this solicitation every single year between now and time immemorial,” Freilich said. “This will put us in a position where we always have instruments under development. That will allow us to respond to partnership opportunities in a more nimble way.”

The small satellite solicitation, scheduled to be issued first in 2011 and every four years after that, will seek proposals for Earth science missions that can be developed in five years at a cost of approximately $150 million, Freilich said. The Earth Science Division also plans to solicit proposals for suborbital Venture-class missions in 2013, he added.

“The Venture-class program has expanded,” Freilich said. “It is a key part of our program and I pledge to keep those regular opportunities available.”

NASA’s Earth science program also is expanding its emphasis on providing long-term climate data records. “The administration for the first time gave NASA the mandate to examine how we might contribute to climate continuity,” Freilich said. As a result, NASA plans to mount the third-generation Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment on the international space station in 2014, he said. That instrument, which has been stored at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., since 2004, is designed to measure ozone, aerosols and water vapor.

To maintain ongoing records of climate variables, NASA also is working with the German Aerospace Center to develop a successor to the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment launched in 2002 and with the French space agency to measure ocean color as part of the Pre-Aerosol Clouds and Ocean Ecosystem mission scheduled for launch in 2018, Freilich said.

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...