NASA’s drifting climate satellites could find new life as wildfire and storm watchers
Since NASA’s Terra satellite launched in 1999, it has seen a world utterly transformed. Surface temperatures have risen half a degree. Sea levels have climbed 80 millimeters higher. Plants have expanded across an area as big as the Amazon rainforest. Through it all, Terra and two other satellites—Aqua, launched in 2002, and Aura, in 2004—served as the foremost sentinels of a changing planet, running far past their expected 6-year missions.
If the Aqua mission is continued, it will drift out of its current orbit, which crosses the equator more than a dozen times a day at 1:30 p.m. local time, and end up in one that crosses at 3:50 p.m. local time, says Claire Parkinson, Aqua project scientist at GSFC, who has led the mission for 29 years. Terra will drift to an earlier morning pass, from 10:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., and Aura will drift 50 minutes later, from 1:45 p.m. to 2:35 p.m.
The time changes will enable critical new investigations, researchers say. By observing earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon, the satellites will capture long shadows, which can reveal the 3D structure of surface features or clouds. Crossing the Arctic Ocean earlier and later in the day will reveal how it exchanges heat with the atmosphere at previously unobserved times. And Aqua will be primed to explore the severe storms and wildfires that tend to peak in late afternoon. “We’re getting a new fire satellite by maintaining orbital drift,” Román says. “They will get so much bang for their buck.”
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