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Blue Waters Supercomputer Crunches Data from NASA’s Terra Satellite

Researchers are using the Blue Waters supercomputer at NCSA to process new data from NASA’s Terra Satellite. Approximately the size of a small school bus, the Terra satellite explores the connections between Earth’s atmosphere, land, snow and ice, ocean, and energy balance to understand Earth’s climate and climate change and to map the impact of human activity and natural disasters on communities and ecosystems.

Professor Larry Di Girolamo, who was in his first year of graduate school studying atmospheric sciences when Terra was conceived, has literally watched the Earth change before his very eyes with Terra.

Blue Waters give scientists the ability to rapidly go through the data. Without the leadership system, we would be severely held back,” he said. “These visualizations will showcase the how the Terra satellite samples the Earth in a visually compelling and informative way, and how the different instruments on the Terra satellite are fused together to better document how the Earth has been changing.”

Terra satellite carries five instruments that take coincident measurements of the Earth’s system and each carries out a different mission:

  • Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER)produces images using infrared, red and green wavelengths of light to create detailed high resolution land maps visualizing temperature, emissivity, reflectance and elevation.
  • Clouds and Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) is a pair of identical CERES sensors aboard Terra that measure the Earth’s total radiation budget and provide cloud property estimates that enable scientists to quantitatively assess the role of clouds in the Earth system.
  • Multi-angle Imaging Spectroradiometer (MISR) MISR views the Earth with cameras pointed at nine different angles to determine measure the angular distribution of scattered sunlight, which is used to measure aerosol pollution over land and water, cloud structure, and surface vegetation properties. It is designed to enhance our knowledge of the lower atmosphere and to observe how the atmosphere interacts with the land and ocean biospheres.
  • Measurement of Pollution in the Troposphere (MOPITT) is the first satellite sensor to use gas correlation spectroscopy to measure the emitted and reflected radiance from the Earth in three spectral bands. The data is used to measure the amount of carbon monoxide and methane in our atmosphere.
  • Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) makes detailed measurements from the visible to the infrared over a 2300 km swath, allowing scientists to retrieve a wide range of properties of the Earth’s surface, atmosphere and clouds.

The Terra satellite launched on December 18, 1999 and was originally anticipated to have a lifespan of six years. But with great engineering and clever fuel usage, Terra is now estimated to continue into the 2020’s. Terra completes about 14 orbits a day, in a circular 10:30 am sun-synchronous polar orbit, where every over takes 99 minutes to complete. Since the early 2000’s, Terra has played a key role in the study of air pollution. In fact, Terra was the first to study air pollution over land from space, and includes studies of the effects of air pollution on human health.

Being able to produce results quickly with Blue Waters allows scientists to look through their data and analysis quickly, raise new hypotheses based on that analysis, and re-analyze the data to test the new hypotheses,” said Di Girolamo. “That type of interaction with the data is central to the rapid advancement of Earth Science with Terra.”

Scientists are actively weighing the benefits and risks of maintaining its current climate quality record by continuing its orbit path, or lowering its altitude to preserve fuel to extend its time in space, but would end Terra’s climate quality data record for climate trend analysis.

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