Decadal Survey Incubation

The Decadal Survey Incubation (DSI) Program is a new program recommended by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine in the 2017 Earth Science Decadal Survey.

DSI will accelerate the readiness of high-priority observables needing science requirements refinement, technology development, and/or other advancements prior to cost-effective flight implementation. The program’s two targeted observables are: Planetary Boundary Layer and Surface Topography and Vegetation.

These two fields, the Planetary Boundary Layer (PBL) and Surface Topography and Vegetation (STV), are complex and dynamic systems with important science objectives and societal applications. Advancing technology to support these areas will improve observational capabilities that may unlock new insights into a wide variety of Earth processes.

To this end, the Decadal Survey recommended that NASA create a new Incubation Program to explore and develop new technologies to probe these two science areas by 2027. 

ESTO is managing this effort, but the program is closely coordinated with two focus areas within the Earth Science Division’s Research and Analysis program: Weather and Atmospheric Dynamics (for PBL); and Earth Surface and Interior (for STV). Prior to issuing a ROSES solicitation, two study teams were competitively selected to “identify methods and activities for improving the understanding of and advancing the maturity of the technologies applicable to these two targeted observables and their associated science and applications priorities,” as stated in the Decadal Survey. Each team produced a study team report that helped inform the FY21 solicitation:

The study team reports offer a wealth of information for each area, including a description of the science and science needs, descriptions of current technologies and technology needs, the current program-of-record (missions that are either already in-orbit or have been approved for development), and a draft Science and Applications Traceability Matrix (SATM).

Planetary Boundary Layer

The PBL is the lowest layer of the atmosphere and is directly influenced by its contact with Earth’s surface. Although the PBL includes the air we breathe and the weather we experience, it  is relatively poorly observed and modeled. We do not fully understand the exchange of energy, moisture and pollutants in this layer with Earth’s surface and the atmosphere. These exchanges are critical to weather and climate. 

In order to adequately represent key boundary layer processes, we need high resolution, diurnally resolved, and 3D/2D measurements of the PBL. While current observations from geostationary satellites can resolve the diurnal cycle and provide useful information on cloud properties, we still need improved temperature and humidity soundings, as well as measurements of PBL height with sufficient resolution.

One possible future architecture may be a combination of geostationary, polar and suborbital measurements to obtain diurnally resolved PBL observations. The Decadal Survey set high-level measurement requirements of 200m vertical resolution for 3D variables (temperature, humidity, horizontal wind vector) with 2-3 hour temporal resolution and 20km horizontal resolution.

Joao Teixeira at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory led the PBL study team, along with technology co-lead Jeff Piepmeier at Goddard Space Flight Center and technology deputy co-lead Amin Nehrir at Langley Research Center. Team members included:

  • Chi Ao, NASA JPL
  • Matthew Lebsock, NASA JPL
  • Carol Anne Clayson, Woods Hole Oceanographic Instit.
  • Ann Fridlind, NASA GISS
  • Will McCarty, NASA GSFC/GMAO
  • Joe Santanello, NASA GSFC
  • Dave Turner, NOAA
  • Haydee Salmu, Hunter College CUNY
  • Xubin Zeng, University of Arizona
  • Zhien Wang, University of Colorado
  • Shuyi Chen, University of Washington

Surface Topography and Vegetation

Characterizing surface topography with contiguous measurements and adequate resolution will reveal geologic structure and geomorphological processes, which in turn can provide new insights into phenomena like:

  • surface water flow,
  • sea level rise,
  • storm surge in coastal areas, and
  • offshore water depth near coastal areas

Space-based lidar can simultaneously map the vegetation structure and underlying “bare earth” topography across globe at high spatial resolution. Lidar, radar, and stereophotogrammetry deployed on a wide range of platforms and united with advanced information systems can be matured and applied to meet these measurement needs. Furthermore, this information could revolutionize our capability to understand Earth surface processes and greatly enhance our ability to predict hazards and surface deformation. The Decadal Survey sets a high level requirement for contiguous 5m sampling with 0.1m vertical accuracy from space, and contiguous 1m sampling with 0.1m vertical accuracy from an aircraft.

Andrea Donnellan at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory led the STV study team with David Harding at Goddard Space Flight Center as the technology co-lead. The team included:

  • Alex Gardner, NASA JPL
  • Cathleen Jones, NASA JPL
  • Paul Lundgren, NASA JPL
  • Yunling Lou, NASA JPL
  • Sassan Saatchi, NASA JPL
  • Marc Simard, NASA JPL
  • Robert Treuhaft, NASA JPL
  • Jason Stoker, U.S. Geological Survey 
  • Konrad Wessels, George Mason University


The Decadal Survey Incubation (DSI) program uses NASA’s Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Science annual omnibus solicitation (ROSES) to issue its investment opportunities. NASA anticipates releasing DSI ROSES solicitations on a 3-year cycle.

DSI-21 (ROSES-21 element A.45):{C5C8A717-CEAC-DC52-D287-18E1DE1C4B18}&path=&method=init

DSI Solicitations

SolicitationLink To SolicitationLink To Award
DSI ROSES 2021Solicitation (link)Awarded Projects