New Effort to Explore Earth’s Processes

The Incubation Program explores and develops new technologies to help define the Planetary Boundary Layer and Surface Topography and Vegetation study areas defined by the National Academies of Science.

In 2017, the National Academies of Science released a Decadal Survey that highlighted two priority Earth science areas that lack mature monitoring technology. These two fields, the Planetary Boundary Layer (PBL) and Surface Topography and Vegetation (ST&V), are both complex and dynamic systems. New technology will allow us to improve our observational capabilities and unlock new insights.

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. 

NASA’s Earth Science Technology Office is managing this effort and has competitively selected two study teams 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 will produce a white paper that will help inform the next solicitation in FY21. 

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 among this layer, 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. Although current observations from geostationary satellites can resolve the diurnal cycle and provide useful information on cloud properties, we do not have temperature and humidity soundings with sufficient capability to resolve the PBL from geostationary platforms.

We need a combination of geostationary, polar and suborbital profiles to obtain diurnally resolved PBL observations. The Decadal Survey has set 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 is leading the PBL study team, Jeff Piepmeier ( at Goddard Space Flight Center is his technology co-lead and Amin Nehrir (amin.r.nehrir) at Langley Research Center is the technology deputy co-lead. Other team members are:

  • 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. This information could revolutionize our capability to understand how Earth’s surface works and greatly enhance our ability to predict hazards and surface deformation. The Decadal Survey sets a 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 is leading the ST&V study team with David Harding ( at Goddard Space Flight Center as the technology co-lead. Their team includes:

  • 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

Download the STV Emerging Technology quad chart here.