The impact of thunderstorms and tropical weather systems on climate models will be the focus of a new mission recently announced by NASA, which it says will employ a small array of satellites to scour the globe for clues to unraveling little-understood weather phenomena in the years ahead.
The focus of NASA’s new earth science mission, which it calls Investigation of Convective Updrafts (INCUS), was recently outlined by the space agency in a press release.
“The mission will be a collection of three SmallSats, flying in tight coordination,” an official NASA statement read, “and is expected to launch in 2027 as part of NASA’s Earth Venture Program.” Earth Venture Mission-3 (EVM-3) is itself a component of the Earth System Science Pathfinder (ESSP) Program, which defines its mission as being to “understand and explore our home planet, improve lives and safeguard our future.”
The program announced that it would begin soliciting Principle Investigator-led science investigations last November. Of a dozen proposals that the space agency received as of March 2021, INCUS was selected for development.
Specifically, the INCUS program will collect information that NASA plans to use to aid in understanding why a variety of climate phenomena occur, how they form, and how they are connected. These range from heavy precipitation in storms and thunderstorms, to the dispersal of cloud coverage and their formation.
NASA says that the focus elements within INCUS are an outgrowth from its 2017 Earth Science Decadal Survey, undertaken by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said the forthcoming program will fill “an important niche” that will greatly benefit NASA and other agencies around the world addressing climate issues today.
“Every one of our Earth science missions is carefully chosen to add to a robust portfolio of research about the planet we live on,” Zurbuchen said in a statement, adding that INCUS will “help us understand extreme weather and its impact on climate models – all of which serves to provide crucial information needed to mitigate weather and climate effects on our communities.”
According to an outline of the program, part of what NASA will seek to understand better with INCUS involves a phenomenon called convective mass flux (CMF), which it calls “one of the great unknowns in weather and climate.” As storms begin to form, water vapor and air begin to quickly rise which leads to the formation of large cloud fronts capable of producing heavy rain, as well as other forms of precipitation like hail. Lighting is also produced in these systems, and while CMFs remain mysterious, it is understood that the risk of extreme weather appears to rise proportionally with the amount of air and water vapor that gets carried upward into the atmosphere.
NASA believes that understanding the precise elements contributing to CMFs will be better understood with systematic measurements INCUS will help to provide. Such measurements will eventually also help produce accurate forecasts in advance of potentially severe weather, in addition to helping understand and possibly reduce risks associated with climate change.
NASA announced that Colorado State University professor Susan van den Heever, an expert in cloud physics and atmospheric science, will be the principal investigator for the program. Several NASA centers will provide additional support for INCUS, which includes Goddard Space Flight Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and others. Additional satellite system data will be provided by two Colorado-based companies, Blue Canyon Technologies, and Tendeg LLC. A launch provider for the mission, which is expected to cost upwards of $177 million (a figure that does not include startup costs for the mission), has not been announced presently.
NASA’s Earth Science division director Karen St. Germain emphasized the importance of the INCUS program and its mission in the coming years.
“In a changing climate, more accurate information about how storms develop and intensify can help improve weather models and our ability to predict risk of extreme weather,” Germain said in a statement.
“This information not only deepens our scientific understanding about the changing Earth processes but can help inform communities around the world.”