Earth Science Technology
The Earth Science Technology Office (ESTO) funds and manages the development of nascent Earth science technologies, from algorithms that digest and analyze large Earth science datasets to novel instruments aboard airplanes and shoebox-sized satellites. All programs address NASA’s Earth Science Focus Areas, which cover the water cycle, climate change and atmospheric processes, among other topics.
To read more about ESTO’s projects over the last year, download the 2020 Earth Science Technology Annual Report.
ESTO has invested in nearly 900 projects spanning a wide range of technologies at different stages of development. Our work is managed under the following programs.
The Advanced Information System Technology Program (AIST) funds evolutionary and disruptive projects and develops tools to improve how we use Earth science data already collected by land, air and space. It aims to increase access to science data and enable new observation measurements and information products.
The Advanced Component Technologies (ACT) Program funds new component- and subsystem-level technologies to reduce the risk, cost, size, mass, and development time of missions and infrastructure. It helps mature components so that they can be integrated into other NASA-funded technology projects, including those funded by the Instrument Incubator Program.
The Instrument Incubator Program (IIP) funds novel instruments offering new or improved ways to observe Earth. The program takes new ideas and helps develop them into validated demonstrations. These new instruments, including lasers, spectrometers and radars, among others, are smaller, more affordable, and seek to include enabling new component technologies and architectures. The program’s eventual goal is to see these new technologies implemented into future Earth observing missions.
The In-space Validation of Earth Science Technologies (InVEST) program reduces the risk of cutting-edge technologies by validating them in space. With rapid advancements in small satellite platforms, InVEST allows PIs to validate many new instruments and information systems on CubeSats. These uniformly-sized satellites are relatively inexpensive to build on short time frames, and their small volumes and weights enable many to be sent to space on a single rocket.
Project Highlight: The Hyper-Angular Rainbow Polarimeter (HARP) will use a polarimeter for the first time from a CubeSat to better understand clouds and aerosols. The tiny satellite launched in November 2019 and won the SmallSat Mission of the Year award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 2020. Read about its first images of clouds and aerosols.
The Sustainable Land Imaging – Technology (SLI-T) program supports innovative technology development activities leading to new Landsat-like instruments, sensors, components, and measurement concepts. These investments are aimed at affordably improving the performance of the operational missions that will follow Landsat.
RAVAN – Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes – demonstrated new technology for measurements of Earth's radiation budget. RAVAN features a small, accurate radiometer to measure the strength of the Earth's outgoing radiation across the entire spectrum of energy, from the ultraviolet to the far infrared. Vertically aligned carbon nanotubes (VACNTs), which are a very deep black across the energy spectrum, serve as the radiometer's light absorber and will enable the radiometer to gather virtually all the light reflected and emitted from Earth.
The RAVAN CubeSat mission was developed at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab and launched on November 11, 2016 as a secondary payload on a ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the WorldView-4 Earth-imaging satellite. The demonstration flight is expected to last for one year and could eventually lead the way to a constellation of miniature radiometers. Such a constellation might enable global coverage of Earth’s total outgoing radiation; provide diurnal sampling of rapidly varying phenomena like clouds, plant life, ozone, and aerosols; and answer long-standing questions about the Earth’s climate.
Developed at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, IceCube is space-validating a commercial 883-GHz cloud radiometer. The satellite has produced the first global atmospheric ice map at the 883-Gigahertz band, an important frequency in the submillimeter wavelength for studying cloud ice and its effect on Earth’s climate.
The CubeSat Radiometer Radio Frequency Interference Technology (CubeRRT) validation project will test a new way for NASA’s future radiometer missions to overcome the ever-increasing amount of radio frequency interference that satellites will encounter while collecting data. Prof. Joel Johnson from the Ohio State University leads the CubeRRT mission. The algorithm validating back end technology is built at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology and the radiometer front end is built at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
Weather satellites have traditionally been large, both in the effort needed to build them and in actual size. A NASA-funded CubeSat, called Microwave Radiometer Technology Acceleration (MiRaTA), was launched into Earth’s orbit from the rocket carrying NOAA’s JPSS-1 weather satellite into space. It was designed to demonstrate that a small satellite can carry instrument technology that’s capable of reducing the cost and size of future weather satellites and has the potential to routinely collect reliable weather data.
NASA’s SAGE IV Pathfinder is ‘science in a shoebox,’ which enables a sustainable way to monitor the health of Earth's ozone layer at roughly 1/10 the cost and size of previous SAGE instruments. That reduction in size, which comes from an improved measurement technique that images the entire Sun rather than looking at only a small portion of it, would make it more cost effective.