Earth Day: Eight Ways Scientists Use Space to Protect Our Planet

From small satellites to the International Space Station, the new frontier for studying our planet is miles above it.

It turns out one of the best ways to study Planet Earth is to leave it. As human access to space has sped up, scientists increasingly rely on everything from satellites to the International Space Station to study our planet and changes to our climate. New tools on the ISS provide data on Earth’s airglow and carbon dioxide levels while satellites track wildfires, Arctic warming and hurricanes.

In honor of Earth Day, here we are highlighting eight ways scientists and engineers are using space to study and protect Earth.

How Satellites Predict Wildfire Spread

A single spark in remote wilderness can ignite massive fires that devastate surrounding communities, destroying homes and taking lives. Emergency personnel and the public rely on satellites high above the Earth to detect these fires early and track their spread.

Coast Guard Launches First Satellites to Aid in Arctic Rescue

Climate change has opened a growing number of treacherous Arctic shipping lanes. In February, a Russian natural gas tanker completed a round trip along the Northern Sea Route — the first time the path across the Arctic has been forged at this time of year. A pair of CubeSats, nicknamed Polar Scout, will help the Coast Guard locate ships stranded in the ice.

How Much is Carbon Dioxide Affecting Our Planet? NASA’s New Space Instrument Aims to Find Out.

Increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide are responsible for about two-thirds of the total energy imbalance that is causing Earth’s temperature to rise. NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory, installed on the International Space Station, will study carbon dioxide in oceans and terrestrial ecosystems.

Viewing the Environmental Impact of US Wildfires from Above

As the world’s climate heats up, many states in the western United States are experiencing increasingly larger and more devastating wildfires, along with a corresponding increase in dangerous air quality from wildfire smoke. A team of engineers has taken to the skies to capture valuable data about the environmental and atmospheric effects of wildfires and the smoke they generate.

A New Generation of Small Satellites Capture Hurricane Sally from Space

When Hurricane Sally hit the Gulf Coast region of the United States, a pair of tiny AeroCubes shot the eye of the storm. These small satellites sent compelling imagery of the hurricane to Earth via laser communications, demonstrating how small satellites can deliver large amounts of data for weather and other research.

Uncovering the Mystery of the Aurora Borealis

Behind the beautiful, glimmering greens and blues of the Northern Lights hides a world of violence. An international group of scientists launched sounding rockets to study the flow of winds in Earth’s upper atmosphere and the interactions of Earth’s magnetic field with the protons and electrons that bombard our planet daily.

Using Artificial Intelligence to Protect Earth from Asteroids

A 25-meter asteroid could devastate an area of Earth the size of Manhattan. NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office uses a series of telescopes to monitor the skies to locate moving objects, track them and identify any that might collide with our planet. Scientists are increasingly counting on artificial intelligence to help.

The International Space Station Adds a Powerful New Camera to Study Earth’s Glow

Earth’s atmosphere naturally gives off light due to chemical reactions that are taking place, a phenomenon known as airglow. The NIRAC camera uses the Earth’s natural airglow to capture stunning nighttime imagery, providing detailed observations of clouds at night for weather prediction and other applications.

We operate the only federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) committed exclusively to the space enterprise.