NASA’s new mission will study microscopic plankton and aerosols from space

Who knew you could see plankton from space? NASA, of course. The space agency launched successfully a new mission now called PACE – short for Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem satellite – which will study its namesake.

It will examine plants and microscopic particles – things so small they are invisible to the naked eye – hundreds of kilometers above Earth. The goal is to better understand how such small things can really impact the entire planet.

“PACE will help us learn, like never before, how particles in our atmosphere and oceans can identify key factors impacting global warming,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement Press.

The goal is to better understand how such small things can really impact the entire planet.

Phytoplankton, in particular, play a vital role in the world's oceans. NASA even provides entertainment YouTube video explaining why they are “incredibly important” complete with fake action figures of the “microscopic warriors fighting for the sea.” What the video calls “plant fighters” are actually microscopic plants that absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen through photosynthesis. It is this ability to absorb carbon dioxide, responsible for global warming, that makes it a key ally in the fight against climate change.

“PACE’s observations and scientific research will profoundly advance our understanding of the role of the ocean in the climate cycle,” said Karen St. Germain, director of the Earth Sciences Division in the Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters. from NASA, in the press release.

Plankton also form the basis of ocean food chains, making them extremely important to the health of marine ecosystems and fisheries. There are tens of thousands of different species of phytoplankton that each have unique interactions with their environment: some beneficial and others potentially harmful, such as toxic algal blooms called red tides.

Although a red tide is an extreme example, different types of phytoplankton can make the sea surface appear to have different colors, although in a way that is often too subtle for the human eye to detect.

The Hyperspectral Ocean Color Instrument carried by the PACE satellite will make observations of ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared light spectra. This will allow scientists to differentiate phytoplankton species by their unique color for the first time from space. They can use this data to determine what types of organisms exist and spot changes in the sea that could impact ecosystems and the coastal communities that depend on them.

Two other instruments aboard the spacecraft will study particles in the atmosphere, particularly aerosols that can affect air quality. “Aerosols are really important for human health, so we really need to quantify what's out there, like what kind of aerosols there are and where they come from,” said Meng Gao, head of aerosol science. data and PACE polarimetry software, in another article. NASA video posted in December.

The funny thing is, decades of work to clean up aerosol pollution has been a double-edged sword. Aerosol particles and some clouds that can form around them can reflect solar radiation back into space. So fewer aerosols in the atmosphere could inadvertently accelerate global warming. Two toaster-sized instruments on PACE are called polarimeters, and can detect the types of aerosols present based on how they reflect light. Knowing what types of aerosols exist can help scientists refine climate models so they can make more accurate predictions for the future.

There are also a few science fiction-sounding scenarios that this type of research could possibly support one day. There were some first study ways to potentially increase the uptake of carbon dioxide by phytoplankton by providing them with more nutrients. Recently, there have also been headlines about a start-up's malicious attempts to release aerosols into the atmosphere in an attempt to stop global warming.

The startup quickly faced backlash – including the Mexican government banning its experiments – due to the potential planetary consequences of attempting to deliberately manipulate the Earth's atmosphere. Tinkering with the oceans and atmosphere in this way falls into the realm of so-called geoengineering, which still faces stiff opposition from researchers and environmental advocates worried about unintended consequences.

The PACE satellite was launched from the Cape Canaveral space station in Florida at 1:33 a.m. ET on Thursday.

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