When most people think of NASA, they might picture the International Space Station, the Apollo Program, or even the Hubble Space Telescope. One oft-overlooked field of study is the space agency’s long history of looking back at our own planet. NASA-conducted climate research serves as the backbone of our current understanding of our changing climate. The space agency’s climate research relies heavily on its fleet of weather satellites, which help researchers develop accurate climate models.
“We don’t have any observations from the year 2050, [or] from the year 2100 but we can use our best knowledge of physics and chemistry and how the earth system works in order to look at the impact of different emissions, trajectories, [and] different policy scenarios,” said Kate Marvel. Marvel is an associate research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
In 1960, NASA launched its first weather satellite, TIROS-1, signaling a shift to studying the climate. TIROS-1 would go on to send back the first TV image of earth from space, 19,000 photos for weather study, and proved that satellites were a viable means of studying our planet. Over the next five years, NASA launched nine more TIROS satellites, with all but TIROS-7 still in orbit.
Up until the 1970’s, NASA wasn’t explicitly tasked with studying the earth’s climate. Until then, the US Geological Survey (USGS) and the Weather Bureau (now NOAA) were the sole agencies leading the United States’ climate study. Over the course of the decade, these agencies were stripped of their funding, and NASA eventually took on the role of studying climate science. A 1976 congressional revision of the space act gave NASA the ability to conduct research related to ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere. This research largely informed scientific analysis that led to every UN country signing the Montreal Protocol in the 1980s, which banned the use of CFCs. Since then, NASA is actively studying ozone levels, and the ozone layer is on track to fully recover within the next 50 years.
NASA currently operates a fleet of Earth-observing satellites, with plans to expand in the coming years. A new batch of satellites, part of the so-called “Earth system observatory,” will aim to bolster climate research, and provide scientists with a more robust understanding of how to mitigate climate-related disasters, fight forest fires, and develop better agricultural practices.