NASA Pioneering Airborne Missions: Advancing Earth and Climate Science

NASA has recently unveiled a groundbreaking initiative, selecting six new airborne missions as part of its Earth Venture program. These missions, with a collective budget of roughly $120 million, are designed to study critical environmental and climate phenomena, including the effects of fire-induced clouds, Arctic coastal changes, urban air pollution, landslide hazards, glacier retreat, and emissions from agricultural activities. This initiative marks a significant advancement in environmental science, blending high-resolution airborne measurements with satellite observations and ground studies to better understand our planet’s complex systems.

Nasa Airborne Mission
Nasa Airborne Mission

Enhanced Observation and Detailed Analysis

The Earth Venture missions are set to deploy various instruments on aircrafts to achieve measurements at higher spatial resolution and over shorter timescales than most satellites can provide. This method allows for an in-depth examination of environmental phenomena that require more frequent observation and precise data collection. Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, emphasized that these missions aim to complement satellite data, providing deeper insights into the observations made from orbit and testing new scientific ideas and methodologies.

A Focus on Actionable Science

One of the unique aspects of these missions is their focus on actionable Earth science. This approach means that the data collected will not only advance scientific understanding but also address real-world needs, supporting economic and societal decision-making. The findings from these missions are expected to have direct implications on policies and strategies concerning environmental management and climate mitigation.

Mission Highlights

  1. Arctic Coastal Change (FORTE): Led by Maria Tzortziou from the City College of New York, this mission focuses on the rapidly changing ecosystems along the North Slope of Alaska. The project will utilize a combination of optical and radar measurements from aircraft, helicopters, boats, and drones to study changes in river systems and their ecological impacts.
  2. Clouds Created by Fire (PYREX): David Peterson of the Naval Research Laboratory will explore pyrocumulonimbus clouds — massive cloud formations caused by intense wildfires. This study aims to understand how these clouds move smoke into the stratosphere and affect the climate.
  3. Urban Air Pollution (HAMAQ): James Crawford from NASA’s Langley Research Center will lead a project that links satellite data with ground-based air quality measures. This mission will focus on urban areas like Mexico City and another U.S. city yet to be determined, aiming to improve air quality forecasting and mitigation.
  4. Shifting Weather, Shifting Lands (LACCE): This mission, headed by Alexander Handwerger of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, addresses the impact of climate-driven changes in precipitation on landslide risks and soil stability.
  5. Glacier Retreat (Snow4Flow): John Holt from the University of Arizona will lead a team to study the retreat of glaciers and ice sheets in critical areas like Alaska and Greenland. This project will employ advanced radar technologies to assess changes in ice dynamics and mass balance.
  6. Agricultural Emissions (NTERFAACE): Glenn Wolfe of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center will examine how agricultural practices contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. This mission aims to quantify emissions of nitrogen and other pollutants from farming activities across the U.S.

Promoting Diversity and Inclusion

An important component of the Earth Venture program is its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Each mission team includes at least one early-career scientist, with the aim of fostering a diverse scientific community and encouraging new perspectives in research planning and leadership. Barry Lefer, program manager at NASA Headquarters, noted the emphasis on involving new participants in mission planning and execution.


NASA’s selection of these six missions under the Earth Venture program represents a strategic enhancement of our ability to monitor and understand Earth’s environmental and climate dynamics. By integrating detailed airborne measurements with broader satellite data and ground studies, these missions promise to provide valuable insights into the pressing challenges of climate change, environmental degradation, and sustainable management. The emphasis on actionable science ensures that the findings will not only advance scientific knowledge but also contribute to practical solutions for the betterment of society and the environment.

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