24.05.2023 Space Earth FarvestDecrypt Ice Clouds NASA

NASA's new mission: Studying ice clouds to help observe Earth’s dynamic atmosphere

Writer Samira Joineau
nasa mission ice clouds earth observation

NASA recently announced the selection of a new mission so as to help humanity better understand Earth’s dynamic atmosphere, and more specifically ice clouds that form at high altitudes throughout tropical and sub-tropical regions.

For this mission, the Polarized Submillimeter Ice-cloud Radiometer (aka PoISIR) instrument will study these ice clouds. The objective is to determine how and why they change throughout the day. And this is to provide crucial information about how to accurately simulate these high-altitude clouds in global climate models. 

More concretely, the investigation comprises two identical CubeSats – each small satellite is just a little over a foot tall – flying in orbits separated by three to nine hours. Over time, these instruments will observe the clouds’ daily cycle of ice content. 

“Studying ice clouds is crucial for improving climate forecasts – and this will be the first time we can study ice clouds in this level of detail” – Nicola Fox, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate (NASA)

The radiometer is an Earth Venture instrument – lower-cost instruments with a targeted research goal, which typically catch a ride along with another mission or commercial satellite in order to minimize launch costs. Besides, the Earth Venture class focuses on providing frequent flight opportunities, meaning that innovative science investigations can be flown relatively quickly – generally within 5 years or less

Such missions contribute to providing key targeted research opportunities, which actually help improve our understanding of what is driving change in the entire Earth system. 

“Understanding how these ice clouds respond to a changing climate – and then, in turn, contribute to further changes – remains one of the great challenges to predicting what the atmosphere will do in the future” – Karen St. Germain, Earth Science Division Director (NASA) 

Principal investigator at Vanderbilt University in Nashville (Tennessee) Ralf Bennartz and Deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt (Maryland) Dong Wu will lead the mission. 

On the one hand, Goddard will provide the project management team that builds the two instruments, while the Space Science and Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin will conduct science operations. The two spacecraft will be built by Blue Canyon Technologies in Lafayette, Colorado.