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NASA announces new Earth science mission amid fears of budget cuts

NASA

NASA plans to launch a completely new type of Earth science mission, aimed at measuring two important aspects of our planet’s health: greenhouse gases and vegetation. The mission calls for a satellite known as the Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory, or GeoCARB, which will provide real-time measurements of gases like carbon dioxide and methane, as well monitor planet health in the Americas. The idea is to get a better understanding of Earth’s natural carbon cycles, and the processes that control greenhouse gas levels in our atmosphere.

Of course, the announcement of this mission comes at a vulnerable time for NASA, as there has been a lot of speculation that the space agency’s Earth science division is in jeopardy. Bob Walker, an advisor to President-elect Trump, recently expressed interest in defunding the division and transferring all of the agency’s Earth science missions to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s unclear how the GeoCARB mission will be affected, if at all, in the future.

For now, though, the plan is for GeoCARB to orbit 22,000 miles up above the Americas. From there, it will calculate daily concentrations of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane — all potent greenhouse gases that trap heat in our atmosphere. Meanwhile, the satellite is also going to figure out how stressed vegetation is in North, Central, and South America. The health of these plants can be determined by measuring something called “solar-induced fluorescence.” It’s a type of light that plants emit after absorbing energy from the Sun and undergoing photosynthesis. Researchers can determine how fast plants are growing depending how much of this light is released.

Understanding how vegetation is fairing will help scientists learn more about natural manipulators of carbon on Earth. GeoGARB is meant to help researchers study things things like carbon sinks — natural environments like forests that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — as well as better document how plants exchange carbon for other gases.

All in all, NASA says funding for the GeoCARB mission will be $166 million over the next five years, but fears are high that NASA’s Earth science funding could be drastically cut during that time. However, Walker, who made the contentious comments about transitioning the Earth science division, will not be formally involved with the NASA transition, so it’s possible such drastic changes to the agency’s policy won’t be made. NASA’s transition is currently being led by former space agency official Christopher Shank, but it’ll be a while before we know what he and his team recommend for NASA’s agenda.