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White House and NASA Brand Future Earth Science Missions

NASA and the White House reported on May 24 that a program called the Earth System Observatory would establish a series of missions proposed by the Earth science decadal survey more than three years ago. The White House announced the Earth System Observatory program in a fact sheet that outlined a broader plan to track and address the effects of climate change, including $1 billion in “pre-disaster mitigation resources” funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for communities.

The White House said about the new program, “NASA’s Earth System Observatory will be a new architecture of advanced spaceborne Earth observation systems, providing the world with an unprecedented understanding of the critical interactions between Earth’s atmosphere, land, ocean, and ice processes. These processes determine how the changing climate will play out at regional and local levels, on near and long-term time scales.”

In a separate statement, NASA said the Earth System Observatory would be a series of missions addressing the “designated observables,” a set of core observations that scientists recommended the agency undertake in an early 2018 Earth science decadal survey. Aerosol research, clouds, convection, precipitation, mass change in snow, ice, water, surface biology, geology, surface deformation, and instability are among the designated observables.

The decadal survey did not suggest unique mission ideas to resolve those issues, but it did include a cost range for each mission, ranging from $300 million to $800 million. The Earth System Observatory program was not given a budget or a timeline in the announcement. However, NASA officials have recently stated that some of the designated observables are approaching the “pre-Phase A” stage of development required to conduct mission concept studies.

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