10 Eco-Galactic Spacecraft Working to Save the Planet

space images
Many types of environmental data simply cannot be gathered while standing on the earth’s surface. Our ability to understand and monitor Earth’s ecological systems has grown exponentially since Russia launched Sputnik 1 in 1957.  These ten spacecraft have been (or, in one case, would have been) instrumental to our current understanding of the Earth’s environment.

GOCE Satellite – European Space Agency (ESA)

goce satellite

(images via ESA)

Just launched on March 17, 2009, the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) has been dubbed the Formula 1 of satellites for its sleek, high-tech design. Over the course of its twenty-month mission, GOCE will measure the Earth’s gravity field with previously unattainable levels of accuracy and spatial resolution. Data from this mission will improve knowledge of ocean circulation, which plays a crucial role in energy exchanges around the globe, sea-level change and Earth-interior processes.

Mars Rover “Opportunity” – NASA

mars rover opportunity

(images via NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab)

Touching down on the surface of Mars in January of 2004, the Opportunity rover has continued to function and carry out its mission twenty times longer than scientists expected. Primary among the mission’s scientific goals is to search for and characterize a wide range of rocks and soils that hold clues to past water activity on Mars. The two roving spacecraft are targeted to sites on opposite sides of Mars that appear to have been affected by liquid water in the past. Despite having some close calls that would have ended Opportunity’s functional presence on Mars, the rover continues to roll around Mars’ barren landscape, looking for clues of a watery past.

Landsat Satellites – NASA/U.S. Geological Survey

landsat satellite and images of new orleans

(images via NASA)

For thirty-seven years, Landsat satellites have taken specialized digital photographs of Earth’s continents and surrounding coastal regions, enabling researchers from diverse scientific disciplines to evaluate the changes in land patterns caused by both natural processes like earthquakes, floods and erosion; along with human practices like urban growth, agricultural irrigation and deforestation.

Hubble Telescope – NASA

hubble telescope photos

(images via NASA’s HubbleSite)

While everyone’s favorite orbiting space telescope normally has its sights set on other planets and galaxies beyond our own, Hubble’s discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating rather than decelerating showed evidence for an unknown “dark energy.” Because of Hubble’s discovery, scientists at NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy are developing a space-based dark energy observatory to learn more about its composition in hopes that they might someday be able to replicate and harness the potential of dark energy here on Earth.

POES – NASA/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

poes satellite images

(images via NOAA)

The Polar Operational Environmental Satellites (POES) are able to make 14 polar orbits per day and are uniquely positioned to collect global data on a daily basis for a wide variety of land, ocean, and atmospheric applications. Data from the POES series supports a broad range of environmental monitoring applications including: weather analysis and forecasting, climate research and prediction, global sea surface temperature measurements, atmospheric soundings of temperature and humidity, ocean dynamics research, volcanic eruption monitoring, forest fire detection, global vegetation analysis, search and rescue among others.

Aura Satellite – NASA

aura satellite images

(images via NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

The Aura mission conducts research on the composition, chemistry and dynamics of the Earth’s atmosphere to give researchers a clearer picture of the Earth’s ozone, air quality and climate. Launched in 2004, the Aura gathers important data about sulfer dioxide and other pollutants in the Earth’s atmosphere.

GOES Satellites – NOAA

goes satellite and hurricane katrina

(images via NOAA)

Besides communications satellites, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) are probably the ones people interact with most frequently. GOES satellite imagery is used to estimate rainfall and snowfall, providing the scientific basis for flash flood and other warnings. Satellite sensors also detect ice fields and map the movements of sea and lake ice. Because they stay above a fixed spot on the surface, GOES satellites can continuously scan for the atmospheric “triggers” of severe weather conditions such as tornadoes, flash floods, hail storms, and hurricanes. GOES images of Hurricane Katrina have become the iconic images of the destructive 2005 storm.

Mir – Russian Space Agency

mir space station

(images via NASA)

Launched in 1986, the (Soviet) Russian space station Mir was designed to provide a long-term occupancy and international research station. Investigations performed aboard the station included remote sensing and environmental monitoring. Mir was perhaps best known for its role in creating international cooperation between the United States and Russia in a post-Cold War era. In 1995, the Mir was outfitted with a docking module, allowing U.S. space shuttles to dock more easily. In 2001, Mir’s sometimes-troubled mission came to a fiery conclusion as Russian engineers decommissioned the space station in a fiery re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

CALIPSO Satellite – NASA/French Space Agency (CNES)

calipso satellite images

(images via NASA)

The Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO) satellite provides new insight into the role that clouds and atmospheric aerosols (airborne particles) play in regulating Earth’s weather, climate, and air quality.


oco satellite images

(images via NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab)

Launched in February of 2009, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) would have provided the first complete picture of the earth’s CO2 sources and sinks. Unfortunately, because of complications during the launch, the OCO failed to reach orbit and the satellite was destroyed in the process. Climate researchers are mourning the loss of the OCO as it would have collected a far greater number of high resolution measurements than what is currently available, which in turn would have provided the distribution of CO2 over the entire globe. These measurements would have been combined with data from the ground-based network to provide scientists with the information that they needed to better understand the processes that regulate atmospheric CO2 and its role in the carbon cycle.


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