The Science Mission Directorate (SMD) – Earth Science fulfills NASA's mission to understand and protect our home planet by using the view from space to study the Earth system and improve prediction of Earth system change. The Directorate also contributes to NASA’s educational mission by inspiring the next generation of Earth explorers.
The Science Mission Directorate, working with its domestic and international partners, provides accurate, objective scientific data and analysis to advance our understanding of Earth system processes and to help policymakers and citizens achieve economic growth and effective, responsible stewardship of Earth’s resources. As outlined in the Earth Science strategy , NASA pursues answers to the fundamental question, “How is the Earth system changing, and what are the consequences for life on Earth?”
The frontier of the interdisciplinary field of Earth system science seeks to:
(1) explore interactions among the major components of the
Earth system – continents, oceans, atmosphere, ice, and life;
(2) distinguish natural from human-induced causes of change;
(3) understand and predict the consequences of change; and
(4) use knowledge about the Earth to search for life in our Galaxy
and the universe.
An agency goal of NASA is to understand the Earth system and apply Earth system science to improve prediction of climate, weather, and natural hazards. Within this goal, the Earth Science Enterprise has two primary strategic objectives: (1) Earth System Science: understand how the Earth is changing to better predict change and understand the consequences of change for life on Earth; and (2) Earth Science Applications: expand and accelerate the realization of economic and societal benefits from Earth science, information and technology. The continuum from science to applications is traversed through a logical progression of observation, research and data analysis, modeling, and scientific assessment. NASA supports both basic and applied research, leveraging its scientific capabilities into valuable decision support tools that benefit society.
Over the past decades, NASA’s Earth-observing satellites and sponsored research have enabled a rich set of scientific discoveries including the processes behind Antarctic ozone depletion and the mechanics behind the El Nino-La Nina cycle. NASA’s focus on the integration of satellite, suborbital and surface measurements, in conjunction with models and simulations, allows scientists to model the Earth’s climate system, measure the global distribution of atmospheric aerosols and related changes over seasons and years, and develop new methods of measuring motions of the Earth’s crust and interior that lead to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The Nation now has a system of Earth-observing research satellites (Figure 1) possessing the ability to characterize the current state of the Earth system in four dimensions – space and time, such as:
- Measuring and monitoring continental drift and plate tectonics, and understanding their impact on natural hazards, earthquakes and volcanoes
- Capturing and documenting dynamics of Earth’s ozone layer and understanding the effects of its depletion on exposure to UV radiation at the Earth’s surface
- Capturing and documenting global ocean circulation and its role in Earth’s weather and climate
- Documenting land cover change at global and regional scales in response to natural and human influences
- Capturing the seasonal dynamics of land vegetation and ocean phytoplankton, and their capacity to cycle carbon through the Earth system and in food and fiber production
- Mapping the four-dimensional structure of storms and hurricanes in space and time, and their risks to human safety, property, and infrastructure
- Mapping Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets in three dimensions with unprecedented accuracy to understand their role in Earth’s weather, climate, and sea level change
- Measuring the Earth’s radiation budget and its variations with unprecedented accuracy to assess its impacts on Earth’s climate and weather
- Measuring Earth’s gravity field and its variations over time with unprecedented accuracy to assess its impacts on ocean circulation and Earth’s climate
- Measuring the distribution of aerosols and clouds, and assessing their roles in Earth’s climate and energy budget
- Mapping the Earth’s surface in three dimensions with unprecedented accuracy and resolution, and using this knowledge to improve understanding of floods, landslides, earthquakes, and volcanoes.
Building on these capabilities that have helped to close the gaps in our knowledge about the Earth system as well as utilizing the capabilities and technologies from the next generation of flight missions (Figure 2), the Earth Science Enterprise has established six focus areas for its future research and applications; the six focus areas are:
- Climate Variability and Change
Develop integrated models of the oceans, atmosphere, cryosphere and land surface, and apply to retrospective and future studies of climate variability and change. Mission activities that support this focus area include Terra, Aqua, ACRIMSAT, Jason, SORCE, GRACE, ICEsat, Cloudsat, Glory, Aquarius, OCO, and a Joint Center for Satellite Data Assimilation (JCSDA).
- Atmospheric Composition
Understand the trace constituent and particulate composition of the Earth's atmosphere and predict its future evolution. Mission activities that support this focus area include SAGE, UARS, TOMS, Aura, Glory, OCO, and Calipso.
- Carbon Cycle, Ecosystems, and Biogeochemistry
Understand and predict changes in the Earth's terrestrial and marine ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles. Mission activities that support this focus area include Landsat, Terra, Aqua, SeaWIFS, EO-1 (Hyperion & ALI), NPP, and OCO.
- Water and Energy Cycle
Characterize and predict trends and changes in key reservoirs and fluxes associated with the global water and energy cycle, including changes in the frequency and intensity of hydro-meteorological events and their regional manifestations. Mission activities that support this focus area include TRMM, Aqua, GRACE, ICEsat, Calipso, GPM, Cloudsat, and Hydros.
Develop the technology, observational and modeling capacity needed to improve daily and extreme weather forecasting (e.g., hurricanes, tornadoes). Mission activities that support this focus area include TRMM, QuikSCAT, Aqua, GPM, GIFTS, the Short-term Prediction Research and Transition Center (SpoRT), and JCSDA.
- Earth Surface and Interior
Utilize state-of-the-art measurements and advanced modeling techniques to understand and predict changes on the Earth's surface and in its interior. Mission activities that support this focus area include SRTM, GRACE, ICEsat, and the geodetic laser, GPS, and interferometer networks.
The 10-year outcomes that NASA projects from its research and development in the six focus areas described above are summarized in Figure 3. The research necessary to answering the prediction questions listed in Figure 3 invariably also engage in questions about variability, forcing, response, and consequence of the Earth system and/or sub-systems. The Research Strategy for Earth Science, available online at http://www.earth.nasa.gov/visions/researchstrat/Research_Strategy.htm, discusses the approach at a greater length that links variability, forcing, response, consequence, and prediction.
Focusing on partnerships with domestic Federal agencies and other international organizations, the Earth Science Enterprise also seeks to facilitate the assimilation of NASA’s Earth science observations, measurements and model output into the decision support tools or systems of the partner organizations to provide essential services to society. The SMD – Earth Science has identified twelve elements of applications of national priority: carbon management, public health, energy management, aviation, water management, homeland security, coastal management, disaster management, agricultural efficiency, invasive species, ecological forecasting, and air quality. The linkages between the six science focus areas and the twelve elements for applications are depicted in Figure 4. The Applications Strategy for Earth Science, available online at http://www.earth.nasa.gov/visions/appstrat2002.pdf, provides a detailed discussion of the systems approach that NASA takes to benchmark its partners’ decision support tools.
Please see http://www.earth.nasa.gov for the full range of capabilities that the SMD – Earth Science has in research, applications, advanced technology, education, and observation and information systems.
The GSRP applications in Earth Science will be considered for research in any of the six focus areas described above. Proposals may stem from atmospheric chemistry and physics, ocean biology and physics, ecosystem dynamics, hydrology, cryospheric processes, geology, geophysics, engineering, and computing or information science. Specific research, whether relating to observations, process studies, modeling, and/or analysis, should emphasize the use of remote sensing and be relevant to the Earth Science Enterprise strategic objectives (e.g., use of remote sensing data in process studies and/or Earth system modeling, integration of sub-orbital and satellite-based remote sensing observations towards establishing climate data records, improvement of remote sensing technology and capability, management of large remote sensing data sets) towards a full understanding of the Earth’s planetary system. NASA is particularly interested in supporting investigations that fulfill a growing need in competencies relating to data assimilation and continuing improvement of remote sensing techniques.
In addition to participating in the GSRP, SMD – Earth Science offers the Earth System Science (ESS) Graduate Student Fellowship Program (http://research.hq.nasa.gov/code_y/code_y.cfm). The terms for both programs are essentially the same except for the schedule. The deadline for applying to the GSRP is February 1 each year, and the deadline for applying to the ESS Fellowship Program is March 15. The GSRP applications received under "Headquarters" and "Earth Science" are reviewed together with the
applications received for the ESS fellowship program, and the selections are announced at the end of June each year. It is not necessary to submit the same application twice under the GSRP and the ESS Fellowship Program; however, only applicants with US citizenship will be considered for GSRP.
NASA discourages submission of paleo-climate, paleo-ecology, and paleo-hydrology related applications to this program. Proposals that address the molecular biology, biochemistry, development, physiology, or evolution of living organisms, without a direct connection to the role of ecosystems (terrestrial, freshwater or marine) in the Earth system and not amenable to remote sensing approaches, should be submitted to other Mission under GSRP (Exploration Systems, SMD – Space Science, etc.).