NASA has recently announced the selection of a new mission aimed at enhancing our understanding of Earth’s dynamic atmosphere, specifically focusing on ice clouds that form at high altitudes in tropical and sub-tropical regions. To accomplish this, NASA will utilize a cutting-edge instrument called PolSIR, which stands for Polarized Submillimeter Ice-cloud Radiometer. This instrument will closely study the behavior of ice clouds, seeking to unravel the reasons behind their changes throughout the day. By doing so, valuable insights will be gained to improve the accuracy of simulating these high-altitude clouds in global climate models.
The mission will comprise two identical CubeSats, small satellites measuring just a little over a foot tall. These CubeSats will be placed in orbits separated by three to nine hours, enabling continuous observations of the ice clouds’ daily cycle and variations in ice content.
Nicola Fox, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, emphasized the importance of studying ice clouds for enhancing climate forecasts. This mission represents a groundbreaking opportunity to investigate ice clouds with an unprecedented level of detail. NASA’s mission selection process is driven by the pursuit of better understanding our home planet.
The lifecycle costs for this mission are capped at $37 million, excluding launch expenses. The PolSIR radiometer is categorized as an Earth Venture instrument, which belongs to a class of lower-cost instruments with specific research objectives. Typically, these instruments are accommodated on other missions or commercial satellites to minimize launch costs. The Earth Venture class is dedicated to offering frequent flight opportunities, facilitating the rapid deployment of innovative scientific investigations within a span of five years or less. Missions of this nature provide targeted research opportunities crucial for advancing our understanding of the entire Earth system and its underlying factors of change.
Karen St. Germain, who leads NASA’s Earth Sciences Division, highlighted the significance of comprehending how ice clouds respond to a changing climate and how they contribute to further alterations. This aspect remains a significant challenge in accurately predicting future atmospheric behavior. The radiometers employed in this mission will measure the radiant energy emitted by clouds, greatly advancing our knowledge of the dynamic changes and responses exhibited by ice clouds throughout the day.