NASA Chooses Proposals for a New Series of Earth Science Programs

NASA has selected a smaller Earth science technology demonstration mission for development and four Earth science mission ideas for additional consideration.

On May 7, NASA announced that it has chosen four ideas for its first Earth System Explorer missions, which will be Phase A research for a year. The agency will provide $5 million to each of the planned missions to conduct the research necessary to improve their mission plans.

After that, NASA will decide which two of the ideas to develop. Two missions were chosen, one to launch by 2030 and the other by 2032. The maximum cost for each mission, excluding launch, will be $310 million.

NASA has chosen the following four mission ideas to be examined:

  • Infrared Vertically-Resolved Light Explorer (STRIVE) Stratosphere Troposphere Response: This instrument will measure aerosols, temperature, and composition from the upper troposphere to the mesosphere;
  • Ocean Dynamics and Surface Exchange with the Atmosphere (ODYSEA), an initiative to record winds and ocean currents concurrently to learn more about how the ocean and atmosphere interact;
  • The Earth Dynamics Geodetic Explorer (EDGE) will measure glaciers, ice sheets, and Antarctic sea ice in addition to providing three-dimensional structures of terrestrial ecosystems; and
  • To gain an improved comprehension of the carbon cycle, the Carbon Investigation (Carbon-I) aims to monitor a variety of greenhouse gasses from both natural and man-made sources.

The Earth System Explorer program was formed by NASA in response to the 2018 Earth science decal survey, and these missions will be the program’s first. The paper suggested that NASA create a series of competitive missions that are larger than its Earth Venture smallsat missions with equipment, but at a lower cost than guided Earth research missions. NASA had originally intended to begin the program in 2020, but financial difficulties forced a delay.

The recommendations, according to NASA’s associate administrator for science Nicky Fox, “The proposals represent another example of NASA’s holistic approach to studying our home planet,” “As we continue to confront our changing climate, and its impacts on humans and our environment, the need for data and scientific research could not be greater.”

At a town hall meeting in March, representatives from NASA announced that in order to prevent flooding interested universities with many calls for proposals at the same time, they will space out the announcements of opportunity (AOs) for the Earth System Explorer and Earth Venture projects. According to a graphic shown at the presentation, the next Earth System Explorer AO is scheduled for release in 2029, with a mission launch scheduled for 2037.

A mission is planned by NASA as part of its reorganized Earth System Observatory, in addition to the Earth System Explorer and Earth Venture programs. As part of this restructure, some smaller, less costly missions will be divided into larger ones, with launches spaced out. According to a community statement NASA published in April detailing its plans for the forthcoming competition, the competing mission, named Atmosphere Observing System – Cloud (AOS-Cloud), would have a cost ceiling excluding launch of $400 million and launch readiness date of 2031.

Separately, NASA is proceeding with a smaller mission to demonstrate Earth science technology. The organization has chosen the University of Florida-led Gravitational Reference Advanced Technology Test In Space (GRATTIS) project for development and launch. A novel sensor that is intended to be used on upcoming missions to monitor the Earth’s gravitational field will be tested as part of this $12 million mission.

According to a statement from John Conklin, the University of Florida’s GRATTIS chief investigator, “Our technology will provide vital insights into the movement of water and ice across the planet.” “This data is essential for monitoring droughts, assessing groundwater reserves, and understanding the impact of melting ice sheets on sea levels.”

GRATTIS will launch on a SpaceX Transporter rideshare mission no sooner than October 2026, using an Aries spacecraft bus furnished by Apex Space.

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