Spacing out: CSU researchers involved in recent NASA Earth science missions

2014 is shaping into a big year for NASA’s Earth science missions – and for researchers at Colorado State University who’ve been involved in some of the projects.

For the first time in more than a decade, NASA  is launching five Earth satellite missions in a single year. Researchers in Department of Atmospheric Science CIRA – the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere – and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering are playing major roles in two of the five.

In February, NASA sent up the international Global Precipitation Measurement satellite, which collects high resolution sharper rain and snow data from around the world.

Then in July, the federal agency launched the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, its first satellite dedicated to measuring the amount of carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere and in natural “sinks” such as oceans and forests.

In both cases, CSU developed the complex algorithms that convert the raw data collected by the orbiting satellites into accurate information that can be used by researchers around the world.

“These are both very important scientific missions that will help scientists better understand what is happening in the atmosphere,” said Matt Rogers, a research scientist at CIRA. “Our teams don’t necessarily build the instruments or hardware for satellite missions – although there are researchers at CSU who do that.  Our job is the science. We are collecting the data and extract important information from it with the mathematical algorithms we develop.”

CloudSat a “breakthrough”

CSU researchers have long partnered with the federal National Oceanic Atmospheric Agency on some of the agency’s weather satellites. (NOAA also sponsors CIRA).

But over the last decade, they’ve gained NASA’s attention for their research and techniques they have developed to study the Earth’s atmosphere and how natural and man-made factors – such as greenhouse gas emissions – are affecting our world.

A major breakthrough was CloudSat – the first radar to look vertically at the characteristics of clouds, particularly water and ice content. CSU proposed the mission and still collects and analyzes the data from the satellite, which launched in 2006.

“To my knowledge, CloudSat was on a scale we hadn’t really done before,” said Steve Miller, deputy director of CIRA. “It was a huge mission for us. Now that we have that experience and infrastructure, we are looking for our next Cloudsat mission.”