Seeing the Big Picture

Satellite image of earth

Of all the planets NASA has explored, none yet have matched the dynamic complexity of our own Earth. Earth teems with life and liquid water; massive storms rage over land and oceans; environments range from deserts to tropical forests to the icy poles. And amid all of that, seven billion people carve out a daily life. 

NASA uses the vantage point of space to increase our understanding of our home planet, improve lives and safeguard our future. NASA monitors Earth’s vital signs from land, air and space with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and ground-based observation campaigns. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth's interconnected natural systems with long-term data records. The agency freely shares this unique knowledge and works with institutions around the world.

People worldwide use NASA data to tackle some of the biggest questions about how our planet is changing. NASA enables studies that unravel the complexities of our planet from the highest reaches of Earth’s atmosphere to its core. NASA also works to put Earth science data into the hands of the world’s decision-makers, making a difference in people’s lives around the world every day. From farms to our national parks, from today’s response to natural disasters to tomorrow’s air quality, from the Arctic to the Amazon, NASA is working for you 24/7.


Meet the Fleet 

From flagship missions like Terra, Aqua and Aura to instruments aboard the International Space Station and airplanes to ground-based sensors, NASA Earth science data is collected from a variety of sources. Taken together they provide a view of Earth unlike any other.

Visit: NASA Earth Science Missions Listing

Infographic of earth's mission fleet


A View Like No Other

All of Earth’s systems like the water cycle, vegetation, arctic ice, weather and living things all interact with each other. NASA’s fleet of Earth-observing instruments provide data about all aspects of our home planet. Connecting this data together and showing how these systems interact with each other is possible due to NASA’s more than 40 years of Earth science data from space. This video shows twenty years of global biosphere data mapped on a slowly spinning globe.


Remote Sensing Explained 

A primer on why we need remote sensing to study the Earth and the differences between active and passive remote sensing from satellites. 


Applying NASA Data

All of NASA’s Earth science data is freely available to the public. NASA’s Applied Sciences program optimizes the use of NASA data by working hand-in-hand with decision makers, U.S. federal agencies, non-governmental agencies, other countries, scientists worldwide, private companies and U.S. state, local and tribal governments.


Applied Sciences Program Areas

The Water Resources and Ecological Forecasting program areas support projects getting NASA’s Earth data resources to decision-makers in organizations like non-governmental groups, water resource managers and others. The Food Security and Agriculture program area, known as NASA Harvest, promotes the use of Earth observations to strengthen food security, support market stability and protect human livelihoods.

The Health & Air Quality program area provides policymakers with Earth observations to enhance decision-making about public health, with a special focus on environmental health and infectious diseases. The Capacity Building program area provides individuals and institutions with workforce development, training activities, and collaborative projects to strengthen understanding of Earth observations and expand their use around the world.

The Disasters program area leverages the Earth observing fleet to ready new methods of detecting, evaluating, and predicting disasters, assessing damage and aiding recovery, and the social, cultural, and economic consequences of these events with the goal of reducing risk and strengthening resilience.


Capacity Building

Photograph of woman working in a field.

Providing individuals and institutions with workforce development, training activities, and collaborative projects to strengthen understanding of Earth observations and expand their use around the world the Capacity Building program area runs the ARSET training program. In collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the SERVIR program partners with leading regional organizations around the world to help developing countries use Earth-observing data to manage environmental risks and land use.


Disasters Mapping Portal

Map of the world with earth science call outs

Satellites are a critical tool for disaster researchers to monitor natural hazards around the world both in near-real time and with predictive modeling, providing invaluable data for response efforts on the ground. Combined with airborne science assets, hazard models, and partnerships with disaster response agencies around the world, the Disasters program area leverages the Earth observing fleet to ready new methods of detecting, evaluating, and predicting disasters and their social, cultural, and economic consequences with the goal of reducing risk and strengthening resilience. Disaster applications and applied research on natural hazards support emergency mitigation approaches, such as early warning systems, and providing information and maps to disaster response and recovery teams. 

View: 2020 Disasters Storymap


Air pollution can appear as a gray or orange haze enveloping a city. What the naked eye can’t see are the hundreds of chemical reactions taking place to produce that pollution. NASA science can reveal a more complete picture of atmospheric chemistry. This NASA visualization shows 96 chemical species that help form one common air pollutant — surface ozone. While ozone in the stratosphere is critical to maintaining life on Earth, surface ozone is a toxic gas to most plant and animal species. Capturing such complexity requires satellites, a computer model, and a supercomputer all working in concert. 

Six maps of Africa with color coded earth data

Another example of modeling is the NASA Hydrological Forecast and Analysis System. This capability was developed to provide seasonal drought forecasts that are relevant for USAID and USACE activities in the Middle East and Africa, based on existing NASA Earth science capabilities. Primary goals include supporting USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network to better predict water supply deficits related to agricultural drought and food insecurity, and providing indicators related to forecasted hydrological anomalies and conditions. 


Satellite Data Processing

In a data-processing room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., racks of high-powered computers are getting ready to make a map. It's not the familiar satellite map of farms, forests and cities. Instead, this map will show what's hovering above the ground — snowfall and rainfall. The data comes from the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission, an international partnership led by NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

This is an example of the many NASA data processing centers and activities taking place daily across the agency. NASA’s Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) data products are processed at various levels, ranging from raw data at full instrument resolution to products where data is converted to more useful parameters and formats.


Airborne Science

As California experienced one of the worst wildfire seasons on record, NASA leveraged its resources to help. While the agency's satellites image the wildfires from space, scientists are flying over burn areas, using smoke-penetrating technology to better understand the damage. NASA’s C-20A aircraft took off from its base at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, carrying the Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR) instrument developed and operated by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Photograph of airplane engine in flight with land and clouds in background

The Ames Airborne Sensor Facility MODIS-ASTER (MASTER) Airborne instrument team is supporting the Western Diversity Time Series (WDTS) mission collecting data from NASA’s ER-2 aircraft. From 65,000 ft data from MASTER, combined with the Airborne Visible and IR Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS), is used to develop a data set that prepares the science community for the NASA Surface Biology and Geology mission. However, flying over targets of opportunity, quick-look data from the MASTER instrument is also being provided to agencies responding to the current CA wildfires through the NASA Applied Science Portal.

Map of elevation near Los Angelos

These California wildfire flights are just one example of numerous airborne missions taking to the skies every year. The Airborne Science Program within the Earth Science Division is responsible for providing aircraft systems that further science and advance the use of satellite data. 

Read: Airborne Science Program Fall 2020 Newsletter 

Filling in the Details with GLOBE

Photo of woman standing in a field taking a photograph

While NASA satellites are seeing the big picture from above, students and citizen scientists can help add details from the ground. One way to do this is through the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) Program. For example, ground observations can help by filling in the gaps in land cover data, offering a comparison to satellite observations of tree height, documenting the aftermath of wildfires or other extreme events, giving the bottom-up view of clouds matched to satellite data, providing reports of dust storms, and much more!

Videos to Watch:

Looking to the Future

Landsat 9, launching in 2021, will continue the legacy of monitoring Earth from space that began with the launch of the first Landsat satellite in 1972. With its consistent, reliable, repeated observations of Earth’s changing surface, the Landsat mission has created a record of Earth’s land surfaces before and after disasters, serving as an essential tool for assessing risk, mapping the extent of damage, and helping with post-disaster recovery. With better technology than ever before, Landsat 9 will enhance and extend this data record to the 50-year mark and beyond. 

ListenCurious Universe podcast “From Space to Farms”

U.S. and French oceanographers and hydrologists and international partners have joined forces to develop the Surface Water and Topography (SWOT) satellite mission to make the first global survey of Earth's surface water, observe the fine details of the ocean's surface topography, and measure how water bodies change over time. SWOT is scheduled to launch in September 2021. 

The NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) mission will measure Earth’s changing ecosystems, dynamic surfaces, and ice masses providing information about biomass, natural hazards, sea level rise, and groundwater, and will support a host of other applications. Planned launch date is January 2022. 

Read: Get to know SAR