News / Science & Technology

Earth-Imaging Yields Hi-Res Look at Ecosystems

NASA operates the Airborne Science ER-2 aircraft for a wide variety of environmental science, atmospheric sampling and satellite data verification missions, undated NASA file photo.
NASA operates the Airborne Science ER-2 aircraft for a wide variety of environmental science, atmospheric sampling and satellite data verification missions, undated NASA file photo.
TEXT SIZE - +
Rosanne Skirble
— The U.S. space agency is adapting tools it has used to learn about water on the moon, minerals on Mars and the composition of exoplanets to analyze ecosystems on planet Earth. NASA this week finished a month of preliminary high-altitude tests of a new Earth-imaging instrument package, which the agency plans to launch into orbit.
 
The instruments have been flying on NASA’s ER-2, an aircraft that skirts the edge of space at an altitude of 20,000 meters, nearly two times the cruising altitude of commercial jetliners.
 
California's San Andreas Fault region captured by the HyspIRI airborne campaign equipment, March 29, 2013: Red areas are composed of minerals high in silica, such as urban areas; darker and cooler areas are composed of water and heavy vegetation, NASA file image.California's San Andreas Fault region captured by the HyspIRI airborne campaign equipment, March 29, 2013: Red areas are composed of minerals high in silica, such as urban areas; darker and cooler areas are composed of water and heavy vegetation, NASA file image.
x
California's San Andreas Fault region captured by the HyspIRI airborne campaign equipment, March 29, 2013: Red areas are composed of minerals high in silica, such as urban areas; darker and cooler areas are composed of water and heavy vegetation, NASA file image.
California's San Andreas Fault region captured by the HyspIRI airborne campaign equipment, March 29, 2013: Red areas are composed of minerals high in silica, such as urban areas; darker and cooler areas are composed of water and heavy vegetation, NASA file image.
The imaging tools gather data about how different wavelengths of light interact with landscape molecules and particles to produce a spectral fingerprint. According to Robert Green, a scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and principal investigator on the Hyperspectral Infrared Imager or  airborne campaign (HyspIRI), sensors for an instrument called the Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer precisely measure the light and temperature characteristics of each ecosystem the plane overflies.
 
“We can see the interaction of the molecules that are present in the earth’s atmosphere, such as water vapor and carbon dioxide, and on the earth’s surface in plants such as cellulous and leaf water and the other constituents of plants," he said.
 
The tool, whose imaging spectroscopy technology was tested over California’s varied landscape, can also measure the impact of surface events such as volcanic eruptions, wildfires and droughts.
 
“We have snow-covered mountains, we have coasts, we have agriculture, we have deserts, we have forested areas," Green said of the testing region along the nation's western edge. "So in one fairly small region of the country, we can capture a tremendous diversity of ecosystems and environments found on the surface of the Earth.”
 
Green says each pixel captured by the imager holds a wealth of information invisible to the human eye. “We can map the species type. We can look at the bio-geochemistry of the plants, [and determine] the state of the chemicals in the leaves of the plant to tell us about their health and productivity," he said. "In the geology area, we can look at the different mineral signatures, which tell us the molecules in the rocks to know exactly what those minerals are.”
 
The test flights, he adds, are part of preparations for an eventual satellite mission that will provide global coverage from low-Earth orbit, about 700 kilometers above the planet.
 
“This would give us global direct measurements of molecules and temperatures of the Earth’s surface, repeated each year, so we could see seasonal and temporal variations," he said.
 
The HyspIRI satellite mission is still in the study phase, with ER-2 test-flights continuing through 2014.
 
Green says the new images of the planet could help scientists better assess how Earth is changing and possibly help policymakers and the public make better-informed decisions about how humans can adapt to the changes.

You May Like

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid