NASA’s latest mission aims to explore microscopic plankton and aerosols from space

Consider the improbable: NASA using its telescope to observe plankton from space. That’s exactly what they’ve done, though. PACE, or the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem satellite, was successfully launched today. This mission will examine, from hundreds of miles above Earth, minuscule plants and particles that are too small to see with the human eye. The mission’s goal is to solve the puzzle of how these microscopic organisms have such a profound effect on our world. According to a press release from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, “PACE will grant us unparalleled insights into how particles in our atmosphere and oceans contribute to crucial factors influencing global warming.”

Particularly, phytoplankton is very important to the world’s oceans. NASA has even produced a compelling YouTube movie emphasizing their importance, which features fictitious action figures of “microscopic warriors fighting for the sea.” In the film, these tiny plants—referred to as “phyto fighters”—are involved in photosynthesis, which produces oxygen by consuming carbon dioxide. They are an important ally in the fight against climate change because of their capacity to sequester carbon dioxide, which warms the globe.

In a news statement, NASA Headquarters’ director of the Earth Science Division, Karen St. Germain, stressed that “observations and scientific research from PACE will significantly advance our understanding of the ocean’s role in the climate cycle.” As the base of ocean food chains, plankton is essential to the health of marine ecosystems and the survival of fisheries. With tens of thousands of different species, phytoplankton interacts with their surroundings in a variety of ways. Some of these interactions are advantageous, but others could be dangerous, like the poisonous algal blooms that cause red tides. Although red tides are an extreme example, different kinds of phytoplankton can gradually change the color of the sea surface in ways that are frequently invisible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral ocean color instrument that monitors the ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared light spectrums is part of the PACE satellite’s equipment. This feature allows scientists to distinguish between different kinds of phytoplankton based on their distinct hues for the first time from space. Identification of animals and detection of sea level changes that may affect coastal communities and ecosystems are made possible by this data, which is invaluable. Two other instruments on the spacecraft examine atmospheric particles, specifically aerosols that affect air quality, in addition to phytoplankton. Aerosols are important for human health, and PACE’s polarimeters can identify the different kinds of aerosols by examining how they reflect light. With the use of this information, scientists can improve climate models and make more precise future projections. It’s interesting to note that although improving human health, attempts to lower aerosol pollution have unforeseen implications.

Aerosol particles have the ability to reflect solar radiation back into space, together with the clouds they generate. There is a chance that attempts to reduce aerosol pollution will unintentionally hasten global warming. The polarimeters of PACE are essential for classifying aerosols and improving climate models. The satellite’s data could help with future projects beyond climate study. Some research looks into ways to feed phytoplankton extra nutrients to improve their ability to absorb carbon dioxide. A firm that aims to combat global warming by launching aerosols into the atmosphere has also been the subject of reports. However, because of worries about unforeseen consequences, such geoengineering attempts encounter tremendous opposition.

Image: NASA

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