Earth Sciences

USRA scientists strive to understand Earth's natural processes and their propensity to change and the linkage between human and natural systems. USRA scientists also lead efforts to build knowledge and abilities to apply earth observations for societal inputs.

Current Highlights
images of the Kilauea caldera in Hawaii.

Airborne Test of Instrument to Monitor World’s Ecosystems

USRA operates Ames Airborne Sensor Facility to support  NASA with sensor development, data collection, instrument engineering services and remote sensing instruments.

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At NASA Ames Research Center, USRA operates Ames Airborne Sensor Facility to support the airborne science research activities of the NASA Earth Science Division with sensor development, data collection and instrument engineering services as well as operating a suite of facility remote sensing instruments.

Data acquired by the ASF are used by a variety of scientific programs to monitor variation in environmental conditions, assess global change and respond to natural disasters. Recent and ongoing activities include validation of the Hyperspectral Infrared Imager concept, which is a proposed satellite mission that will study the world’s ecosystems and provide critical information on natural disasters such as volcanoes, wildfires and drought. The mission will provide a benchmark on the state of the world’s ecosystems against which future changes can be assessed.

In order to validate the concept, a multi-year airborne data collection campaign is underway using the JPL AVIRIS and Ames MASTER instruments to provide precursor data sets over carefully selected test sites. USRA’s NAMS/ASF contribution is the operation of the MASTER instrument, which provides multi-spectral thermal infrared imagery for the study.

image of lightning

Early Warning of Severe Weather

USRA researchers, Doug Mach, Monte Bateman and Bill McCaul contributed to algorithm development, calibration and validation of NASA’s Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM), which was launched on GOES-16 in November 2016. One of the major features of GLM is that it is able to detect lightning against the bright background of clouds. This new capability provided by GLM represents a quantum leap forward in our ability to detect lightning and to use that detection to forecast and warn people of severe weather events.

image of ice bridge

Operation IceBridge

Operation IceBridge is an ongoing airborne mission to assess the state of the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets. USRA contributes in the operation of Digital Mapping System cameras and precision alitutude reference systems. 

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Operation IceBridge is an ongoing airborne mission to assess the state of the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets. It includes annual missions to both polar areas, staging out of Greenland, Alaska, and southern Chile. USRA contributed to the operation of the Digital Mapping System cameras and precision altitude reference systems. 

The resulting data was then processed by the Alaska Satellite Facility (ASF) into Digital Ortho-Photos which are used to document the changing conditions of sea and land ice. In 2017, the ASF collected and processed 795,459 frames of calibrated DMS imagery with a total data volume of 17.09 Terabytes, all of which are archived at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

image of test results comparing data

Improved Model of Global Precipitation

Most people check the weather each day, and those forecasts come from informational models that simulate data from many systems and predict future results. To increase the reliability of models of statistical and global weather, USRA scientist Saulo Freitas has worked at NASA Goddard Research Center to develop, implement, and evaluate an alternative convection parameterization in the NASA Goddard Earth Observing System (GEOS-5) global model.

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Convection parameterization (CP) is a sub-model component of an atmospheric model and aims to represent the role of convective clouds on the evolution of the weather.

Most atmospheric models, even on a global scale, come close to the spatial resolution where convective clouds
are being explicitly resolved. After being tested on several model configurations and spatial resolutions, the alternative convection parametrization provided a stable and reliable solution. Its reliability compared to other models makes it applicable on a large range of scales, from planetary waves down to cloud scale circulations. It can be used in studies of weather and air pollution forecasting, and seasonal climate prediction and atmospheric chemistry processes. Depending on the factors being studied, utilization of this CP scheme, alone or with others, could provide scientists with additional information to improve the accuracy of local and global forecasts.

image of atmosphere

Atmospheric Chemistry

One of the most pressing scientific concerns today is to understand Earth's atmosphere and how human activity might affect the habitability of the planet. 

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USRA researchers seek to discover how climate is changing as greenhouse gases increase, and how these changes will impact other aspects of the Earth system; the spatial extent and dynamics of the ozone layer and the Antarctic ozone hole; how anthropogenic activities contribute to atmospheric pollution on regional and global scales; the impact of long-range transport of pollutants on local air quality; and how climate change will impact local air quality.

climate image - courtesy of NASA

Weather & Short-term Climate

Data assimilation is a critical capability for weather forecasting and short-term climate research, both for specifying the optimal initial state for forecasting and to establish an accurate and consistent data record for climate simulations and diagnostic studies. In collaboration with NASA, USRA researchers are working to develop a better and more efficient data assimilation system by moving to a 4D-Var approach and improving the GEOS-5 model.

image of ocean

Carbon Cycle & Ecosystems

Carbon cycle and ecosystem research measures and models elements of the terrestrial and marine systems and their links with the atmosphere. Projects includes marine phytoplankton measurement and monitoring, atmospheric CO2 transport models with links to terrestrial and oceanic sources and sinks, and atmospheric circulation models with links to surface properties. USRA's research is focused on gaining a better understanding of the carbon cycle, improving remotely sensed data collection to meet critical needs, enhancing ecosystem modeling, and developing innovative measurement and modeling techniques.

Climate System Modeling image courtesy of NASA

Climate System Modeling & Analysis

USRA works with recognized experts from government and academia to analyze and understand climate data such as sea ice variation, sea level change, aerosols, vegetation, and ozone. Climate change research includes Earth system modeling, data analysis, and data assimilation techniques.

USRA Programs in Earth Sciences
Earth as seen from the International Space Station

Earth from Space Institute (EfSI)

For the first time, a new USRA-led independent initiative, Earth from Space Institute (EfSI), focused on supporting the development of long-term strategies for environmental sustainability and climate action has been established.  EfSI will use data obtained from Space and convert it into useful information that increases our knowledge of the Earth system to inform decision makers of potential strategies for future climate-enhanced disasters.

EfSI will bring together diverse physical and social science teams to assess the human impact on planet Earth and study mitigation strategies to sustain our infrastructure and economic prosperity. Through community interaction and research team building, it will redefine the earth science mission by zeroing in on the impacts on frontline and vulnerable communities and fundamentally changing the way scientists approach science.

STI logo

Science and Technology Institute (STI)

In collaboration with NASA and The University of Alabama in Huntsville, USRA’s STI fosters research efforts that include astrophysics, space science, new technology studies, and educational activities. Space science research includes gamma-ray astronomy, X-Ray astronomy, cosmic ray physics, solar physics and space physics.  

NASA Academic Mission Services (NAMS) center


USRA leads the NASA Academic Mission Services (NAMS) contract at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. NAMS provides Ames with capabilities ranging from fundamental research and development through field-test deployments and operational science missions. USRA and our teammates deliver a university-based program and project support for science and engineering teams across research mission directorates at Ames.