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New NASA Space Sensors to Address Key Earth Science Questions

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 5, 2018 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — Why is the Arctic warming faster than the rest of the planet? Does mineral dust warm or cool the atmosphere? NASA has selected two new, creative research proposals to develop small, space-based instruments that will tackle these fundamental questions about our home planet and its environment.

The Polar Radiant Energy in the Far Infrared Experiment (PREFIRE) will fly a pair of small CubeSat satellites to probe a little-studied portion of the radiant energy emitted by Earth for clues about Arctic warming, sea ice loss, and ice-sheet melting. Tristan L’Ecuyuer of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is the principal investigator.

The Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT) will use a sensor mounted to the exterior of the International Space Station to determine the mineral composition of  natural sources that produce  dust aerosols around the world. By measuring in detail which minerals make up the dust, EMIT will help to answer the essential question of whether this type of aerosol warms or cools the atmosphere. Robert Green of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, is the principal investigator.

These two instruments were competitively selected from 14 proposals considered under NASA’s fourth Earth Venture Instrument opportunity. Earth Venture investigations are small, targeted science investigations that complement NASA’s larger missions. The National Research Council recommended in 2007 that NASA undertake this type of regularly solicited, science-based, quick-turnaround project. The council’s recently released decadal survey recommended the continuance of the program.

“PREFIRE and EMIT make innovative use of technologies first developed by NASA for planetary missions to address important, longstanding questions about Earth,” said Michael Freilich, director of the Earth Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The Arctic helps to regulate Earth’s overall temperature by radiating back into space much of the excess energy from the Sun that is absorbed at lower latitudes. Current satellite instruments do not detect all of the wavelengths of this energy radiating from our planet. PREFIRE will fill in the current data gap at far-infrared wavelengths, collecting information that will help scientists diagnose the impact of this outgoing radiation on the Arctic region’s energy balance.

PREFIRE will fly miniaturized thermal infrared spectrometers on two CubeSat satellites, each about the size of a loaf of bread. The sensors are based on technology previously flown on the Mars Climate Sounder, an instrument on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The CubeSats will orbit Earth’s poles to measure far-infrared emissions and how they

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