NASA Funds New Instrument Projects

NASA Funds New Instrument Projects to Advance Earth Science

Washington, D.C. – NASA Headquarters selected 19 new projects to develop instruments that offer the potential for new or improved ways to observe Earth.

The projects fall under NASA’s Instrument Incubator Program (IIP), which helps new ideas develop into validated demonstrations. The new group of instruments, which includes novel lasers, spectrometers and radars, among others, are smaller, more affordable, and seek to include enabling new component technologies and architectures. The instruments will also seek to incorporate greater onboard intelligence to take advantage of the tremendous strides in algorithm development and processing power. The chosen tasks will take on greater, more calculated risks than past efforts, offering the potential to advance technology and science.

The program’s eventual goal is to see these new, improved technologies implemented into future Earth observing missions that probe pressing Earth science phenomena, like extreme weather and surface deformation. The instruments are inspired by NASA’s Earth Science Focus Areas, which cover the water cycle, climate change and atmospheric processes, among other topics.

To foster projects at various stages of development, they are divided into two subcategories under the IIP: Instrument Concept Demonstration and Instrument Development and Demonstration.

Instrument Concept Demonstration

The new Instrument Concept Demonstration selections include seven innovative ideas on the cusp of development. This thrust nurtures less mature concepts that progress over shorter timeframes and lower costs.

Federico Capasso, a professor at Harvard University, plans to develop a polarimeter-on-a-chip that uses metasurfaces, which have optical properties not found in nature, to measure the concentration and distribution of clouds and aerosols. Aerosols, or tiny particles suspended in the atmosphere, can impact air quality, weather and climate.

Also looking to the sky, Thomas Hanisco, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), aims to develop a lidar system to quantify how much formaldehyde is in the atmosphere in order to extrapolate the concentration of organic aerosols. Formaldehyde concentrations can help scientists understand atmospheric chemistry interactions that produce methane, a relatively short-lived greenhouse gas.

Kevin Cossel, an engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Mark Stephen, an engineer at GSFC, are both interested in obtaining more information about gases in the atmosphere. Cossel plans to investigate spectroscopy to obtain extremely high-resolution measurements of methane, carbon dioxide, ozone and other gasses during day or night, which would be new for this kind of sensor. Stephen will try to reduce the size, weight and power of space-based lidar so that a future mission could use a small satellite to obtain high quality information about atmospheric gases.

John Conklin, a professor at the University of Florida, aims to improve how we measure Earth’s gravitational field from space using small satellites. Conklin will develop a key subsystem of NASA GRACE-like instrument that integrates inertial sensor and laser ranging to reduce overall size, weight and power requirements. This technology could improve coverage of NASA’s GRACE satellites, by launching more than two small satellites, which measure Earth’s gravitational field to monitor groundwater from space.

Ben Yoo, a professor at the University of California, Davis, will plan to explore a new, significantly smaller telescope concept that provides a low-mass, low-volume, integrated, and highly manufacturable alternative to the traditional bulky optical options to better observe deformation on Earth’s surface.

In order to improve flood monitoring and forecasting, among other applications, Simon Yueh, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), plans to create a novel radar system to obtain high-resolution observations of snow water equivalent and soil moisture.

Instrument Development and Demonstration

The Instrument Development and Demonstration program encompasses projects that are more fully realized and span the entire instrument development process, including design, prototypes, models, laboratory and potential airborne demonstrations.

William Deal, an engineer at Northrop Grumman Corporation, and Raquel Rodriguez Monje, an engineer at JPL are working on instruments to better observe clouds. Deal is exploring how to use adaptive radar technology to examine ice cloud properties. The adaptive technology allows the instrument to take measurements only when it can collect worthwhile data, like during a storm, to more effectively use power when on power-constrained small satellites. Monje also plans to use a radar system to observe clouds and ice particles. The goal is to combine different radar frequencies onto a small satellite, building on the success of RainCube (Radar in a CubeSat), which is the first CubeSat to successfully use radar in space.

Nathaniel Livesey, a scientist at JPL, is designing a smaller version of a currently operating instrument, Aura MLS, to significantly reduce overall weight, power and costs. The new MLSCube (short for Microwave Limb Sounder), takes inspiration from the currently operating NASA’s Aura MLS. MLSCube would measure over a dozen trace gases, including ozone, in the stratosphere.

Also focusing on the atmosphere, William Swartz, a scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, is designing a hyperspectral sensor to glean high-resolution air pollution data. The eventual plan is to put this sensor on a CubeSat.

Amin Nehrir, a scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center (LaRC), will try to develop an affordable system to measure water vapor profiles, building on previous work on an airborne water vapor instrument, the High Altitude Lidar Observatory (HALO).

To obtain high-resolution rain measurements at lower costs, Kevin Maschhoff, an engineer at BAE Systems, will attempt to pursue a new way to obtain the 3D structure of precipitation using synthetic aperture radar. Hans-Peter Marshall, a professor at Boise State University, plans to design an innovative radar architecture capable of snow observations at higher resolutions.

Guangning Yang, an engineer at GSFC, aims to develop a small satellite observing system that integrates a hyperspectral system with lidar to improve snow, ice and vegetation measurements. Marco Lavalle, a scientist at JPL, is also aiming to improve measurements of vegetation structure. Lavalle plans to design a mission that includes multiple small satellites flying in formation, simultaneously collecting data using synthetic aperture radars.

David Long, a professor at Brigham Young University, will attempt to develop antenna technology to measure soil moisture and help scientists understand the water cycle. The instrument will obtain data at reduced cost, mass and volume while maintaining quality.

Odele Coddington, a researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Anum Ashraf, an engineer at LaRC, are exploring Earth’s radiation balance. Coddington plans to create a CubeSat successor to the CERES (Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System) instrument, which is aboard NASA’s Terra satellite and measures Earth’s radiation budget. The new instrument will try to reduce CERES’s successor’s development cost and time to launch. Ashraf will also develop an instrument able to succeed the CERES instrument. Ashraf aims to design a new radiometric sensor able to obtain high-resolution Earth radiation measurements, which could help future climate change studies.

You can find a full list of the projects and their abstracts here.

For more information on emerging technologies for Earth science, visit the NASA Earth Science Technology Office website.

Elizabeth Goldbaum, October 2019,