To most, NASA's satellite images of Southern California space look like a weather map, but the yellow clusters that hover over downtown L.A. and Long Beach don't signify rain. Instead they represent high levels of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is fueling climate change.
Carbon dioxide levels are at an all time high, despite the pandemic and researchers have been searching for ways to offset it.
The images released this week are the first of what it's calling the most accurate maps from space that show humans' influence on carbon dioxide levels. NASA researchers hope the new data, centered on the Los Angeles basin, can be used to persuade lawmakers to pass more aggressive policies to fight climate change.
They were captured last February by a first-of-its-kind measurement system dubbed the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3. Located at the International Space Station the device uses a telescope and three spectrometers to measure the electromagnetic spectrum of sunlight to detect carbon dioxide. Launched in May 2019, the project began at NASA in 2012.
It can measure up to 40 locations per day in Southern California, with a focus on L.A. and other areas showing high carbon emissions.
Carbon Dioxide Over the L.A. Metropolitan Area www.youtube.com
JPL research scientist Matthäus Kiel is a lead researcher on the project which released its first map this week. He told dot.LA that researchers decided to focus on Los Angeles first, not just because the NASA-managed Jet Propulsion Laboratory is in Pasadena but because the megapolis has long-standing emissions data.
"We still have a long way to go to provide emissions estimates that will be directly used, but I think we are in a good way," Kiel said. "There's no place like L.A., (where) their emissions are well reported already."
A growing network of sensors on the ground, including a few at JPL partner Caltech, are used by researchers to verify the data from space. Kiel said the plan is to network with universities across the country that have their own emissions sensors to collect and verify more readings.
So far, the satellite readings have been almost exact mirrors of the data on the ground, proving to scientists that it's possible to take these kinds of readings millions of miles away from the Earth's surface.
It's also key that JPL can double-check its data because many environmental factors, from wind to changing weather, can impact the spread and density of CO2.
Kiel said a zoomed-out view from space provides a more accurate way to visualize changes in carbon emissions around the world and he sees its potential for measuring data in remote locations across continents.
"This data can be used to inform policymakers [and] they can use the data to make informed decisions about, for example, emission reduction policies that many cities have in place," Kiel said.
The planet is at a turning point in its climate change battle. An intergovernmental panel told NASA recently that "taken as a whole, the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage costs of climate change are likely to be significant and to increase over time."
These costs include rising sea levels and melting glaciers, changes in rainfall, stronger hurricanes and rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, which the OCO-3 project at NASA is currently mapping.
By the year 2100, sea levels are expected to rise 1 to 9 feet globally, NASA estimates.
Kiel said he was surprised by just how much local weather changed the CO2 readings that are visible from space, using their OCO-3 instrument.
"Sometimes we saw days where we barely saw elevations of CO2 over L.A. [and] this was interesting to see and something that we haven't seen before that we were not able to monitor before," Kiel said. "it was interesting to see how these values move with the different meteorological conditions."
The Los Angeles metro area is the first place JPL has mapped with OCO-3, but Kiel said the plan is to eventually expand the lens to offer a global view of carbon emissions.
The easiest way to do that is to start in places that already have working sensors on the ground. Kiel noted that NASA might look to map Tokyo, the Bay Area or Boston next, since they already have sensors set up in those areas.
"There's a lot ahead of us," Kiel said. "We usually tend to look to the cities where we have ground-based networks just to make sure we can validate the data before we expand to a wider global sense."
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Scientists at NASA's Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory are working overtime on a second Mars mission less than a month after Perseverance landed, this time with the goal of launching a helicopter off the Red Planet's surface for the first time.
The plan is to use NASA's Ingenuity craft, a tiny helicopter custom-designed for flight on Mars, to hover the surface and take photos and videos. It's basically an incredibly expensive drone flight, with the operators millions of miles away and a short window that could make it a tricky maneuver.
The entire endeavor costs about $80 million, a high price tag for a potentially historic first mission.
NASA plans to launch its Mars chopper around April 8, and its test flight duration is limited to roughly a month. The helicopter was carried to Mars packed tightly onto the bottom of the Perseverance rover, which is about the size of a small car.
The expensive experiment is a risky gamble, especially because NASA's crafts are solar-powered.
Farah Alibay, an engineer at JPL working on the Perseverance rover mission and Ingenuity missions, said that time is a critical factor in the mission. The Ingenuity helicopter can't sustain itself after more than a day of darkness, so the team has roughly one Mars day to get it off the ground before its battery dies.
"The helicopter needs photons, it needs sun on its solar panels to charge its batteries and it can only survive one Martian night without that," Alibay said. "That's going to be a very stressful period but what I look forward to the most is after we do that drive is we'll get the first shot of Ingenuity on the surface of Mars, on her own, and I cannot wait to get that first picture."
This test flight with the Ingenuity helicopter would mark the first time a flying craft has landed and taken off on the Red Planet, although NASA has sent four different wheeled robots or rovers to the planet since it first landed the Sojourner in 1997.
"It will have 31 Earth days to attempt to be the first helicopter to fly on another planet," NASA Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze said during a briefing Tuesday. "Sojourner redefined what we thought was possible on the surface of Mars, and completely transformed our approach to how we explore there."
If the mission is successful, it could mean that NASA would look to work with private contractors to develop more craft like the Ingenuity. A JPL spokesperson didn't immediately return dot.LA's request for comment regarding which local companies it might look to work with on future Mars helicopter projects.
Elon Musk has been vocal about his desire to live on and colonize Mars, so perhaps SpaceX might look to advance the technology. NASA implied during the briefing we may one day see privatized short-distance air travel in space, as well as Earth.
"As far as identifying a specific opportunity in the near future, what we like to do within NASA is provide competitive opportunities for our community and so we do offer those on a periodic basis and would hope that the community would see this as a great opportunity to start thinking about aerial platforms as a potential way to really expand our Mars exploration," Glaze said.
The helicopter will also carry a small piece of aerospace history with it as it zooms around Mars – a piece of fabric from the Wright Brothers' first successful test airplane, which took off from Kitty Hawk, N.C. in 1903.
"We are very proud to honor that experimental aircraft from long ago by carrying a small piece of fabric," said J. Bob Balaram, ingenuity chief engineer at JPL. This, he said, is another "Wright brothers moment" in history.
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Fifteen years after her death, science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler has joined an exclusive pantheon of space luminaries memorialized on Mars.
Today NASA announced that the Red Planet locale where its Perseverance rover touched down last month is called Octavia E. Butler Landing, in honor of a Black author who emphasized diversity in tales of alternate realities and far-out futures.
"Butler's protagonists embody determination and inventiveness, making her a perfect fit for the Perseverance rover mission and its theme of overcoming challenges," Kathryn Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist for Perseverance, said in a news release. "Butler inspired and influenced the planetary science community and many beyond, including those typically under-represented in STEM fields."
Butler grew up poor in Pasadena and attended Pasadena City College, where she focused on writing. She published her first book in 1976 and broke into the mostly white, male dominated world of science fiction writing. In 1995, she was awarded a fellowship from the MacAurthur Foundation, She moved to the Seattle area in 1999, where she died unexpectedly in 2006 at the age of 58, after sustaining a head injury in a fall on a walkway outside her home in Lake Forest Park, Wash.
In his own tribute to Butler, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for space science, emphasized the connection to Southern California, the home of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Perseverance mission operations.
Science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler grew up in Pasadena and spent the last years of her life in the Seattle area. (Writers House Literary Agency / Courtesy Ching-Ming Cheung)
"I can think of no better person to mark this historic landing site than Octavia E. Butler, who not only grew up next door to JPL in Pasadena, but she also inspired millions with her visions of a science-based future," Zurbuchen said. "Her guiding principle, 'When using science, do so accurately,' is what the science team at NASA is all about. Her work continues to inspire today's scientists and engineers across the globe – all in the name of a bolder, more equitable future for all."
The official names of geographical features on other planets must be approved by the International Astronomical Union, but NASA has a tradition of giving its own names to off-world landing sites – for example, Tranquility Base, the place on the moon where Apollo 11 touched down in 1969.
The 1997 landing site for NASA's Pathfinder mission to Mars is known as Carl Sagan Memorial Station, in honor of the late astronomer and author of "Contact."
In 2004, NASA designated the landing sites for the Opportunity and Spirit Mars rovers as Challenger Memorial Station and Columbia Memorial Station, respectively. Those names honor space shuttle crews who lost their lives in 1986 and 2003.
The place where NASA's Curiosity rover touched down in 2012 is called Bradbury Landing, as a tribute to Ray Bradbury, the author of "The Martian Chronicles" and many other works of science fiction.
Perseverance has already begun to venture out from Butler Landing: In addition to announcing the landing site's name, members of the mission team shared imagery from the 1-ton, six-wheeled rover's first drive since its Feb. 18 touchdown.
Perseverance's first drive on Mars
Thursday's traverse lasted about 33 minutes and put 21 feet (6.5 meters) on Perseverance's odometer. Color pictures sent back from Perseverance's hazard avoidance cameras show the tread marks left in Mars' red dirt as the rover took its first spin. Such imagery will be used to assess the dynamics of Perseverance's retro-rocket landing, which kicked up dust and exposed rock formations at Butler Landing.
"When it comes to wheeled vehicles on other planets, there are few first-time events that measure up in significance to that of the first drive," said Anais Zarifian, rover mobility testbed engineer at JPL. "This was our first chance to 'kick the tires' and take Perseverance out for a spin. The rover's six-wheel drive responded superbly. We are now confident our drive system is good to go, capable of taking us wherever the science leads us over the next two years."
The rover's software has already been updated to replace the program for landing with the program for surface operations. Mission controllers have also conducted procedures for deployment and checkout of Perseverance's RIMFAX, MOXIE and MEDA instruments, as well as its heavy-duty robotic arm.
"Tuesday's first test of the robotic arm was a big moment for us. That's the main tool the science team will use to do close-up examination of the geologic features of Jezero Crater, and then we'll drill and sample the ones they find the most interesting," said Robert Hogg, Perseverance's deputy mission manager. "When we got confirmation of the robotic arm flexing its muscles, including images of it working beautifully after its long trip to Mars – well, it made my day."
From its vantage point at Octavia E. Butler Landing, NASA's Perseverance rover can see a remnant of a fan-shaped deposit of sediments known as a delta (the raised area of dark brown rock in the middle ground) with its Mastcam-Z instrument. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU)
More than 7,000 raw images have been sent back to Earth and are available online in a gallery supported by Amazon Web Services. That stockpile is sure to grow as Perseverance ramps up full science observations.
The mission plan calls for the rover to make regular commutes of 650 feet (200 meters) or more to sites of scientific interest. "We're going to do some longer drives," Zarifian said. "This is really just the beginning."
The primary goal of the $2.7 billion Perseverance mission is to analyze the composition of Martian soil for traces of ancient life, and store up promising samples for return to Earth by later missions over the next decade.
This story first appeared on GeekWire.
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