PREFIRE: NASA satellites shed light on heat loss in the polar regions | Polarjournal
The first of these small satellites will be launched into space today and will soon provide important data on far-infrared radiation in the polar regions. Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Two tiny NASA satellites will soon provide precise data on the amount of heat that the Arctic and Antarctic radiate into space. One of the two “CubeSats” is being sent on its journey today.

They are extremely small for satellites – according to NASA, each no bigger than a shoebox – but the two so-called “CubeSats” will provide data that is crucial for understanding the greenhouse effect at the poles and improving climate models. Their mission: to determine the extent of thermal radiation that the rapidly warming polar regions emit into space and its influence on our climate, explained Professor Tristan L’Ecuyer, head of the Atmospheric Radiation and Climate Research Group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and principal investigator of PREFIRE (Polar Radiant Energy in the Far-InfraRed Experiment), at a press conference last week.

The first mini-satellite will be launched into space today aboard a Rocket Lab Electron rocket, and the launch date for the second will be announced shortly after the launch of the first.

NASA’s PREFIRE project aims in particular to improve our understanding of the ability of water vapor, clouds and other elements of the Earth’s atmosphere to store heat and prevent it from radiating into space. The two identical CubeSats will carry out complete spectral measurements of far-infrared radiation (FIR) for the first time. This will cover the entire spectrum of Arctic radiant energy with wavelengths between 3 and 54 micrometers, which have never been systematically measured before but account for 60 percent of Arctic infrared emissions.

The two CubeSats are intended to improve our understanding of why the Arctic has warmed more than two and a half times faster than the rest of the planet since the 1970s. Photo: NASA / Visible Earth

The scientific team, led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), expects the new data to close a major knowledge gap about the Arctic energy budget. Two climate modelers are also part of the team, who will immediately integrate the direct measurements into their models. Until now, the models have only been able to work with assumptions about far-infrared radiation in the polar regions. But with real data, the updated climate and ice models will then be able to provide more accurate predictions of changes in weather, sea level and snow and ice cover in a warming world.

“The goal is working with the climate modeling team. […] Once we make the observation we directly give them the observations so that we can improve those aspects of the climate model and make sure the model is doing what we are observing from space. And then the climate model community can go ahead and do their usual experiments where they simulate the future climate a hundred years from now, fifty years from now when carbon dioxide increases by another few hundred parts per million. They can see then how the new information has affected the temperature in the Arctic, the speed at which the glaciers in the Arctic are melting, and the speed at which sea levels are rising,” explained Professor L’Ecuyer.

Worldwide, this improved information can be essential for decisions related to climate change adaptation strategies.

Among other things, PREFIRE wants to determine how efficiently far-infrared heat is emitted from surfaces such as snow and sea ice. Photo: NASA / Visible Earth

The satellites will orbit the Earth in two asynchronous near-polar orbits at an altitude of 525 kilometers for about a year and provide several observations of the surfaces and clouds in the Arctic and Antarctic per day. “A single satellite that revisits the same region of Earth every several days can monitor seasonal changes that researchers can use to improve climate models. But following the interactions between Earth’s surface and atmosphere, such as the amount of cloud cover temporarily effecting the temperature of the area beneath it, requires more frequent measurements. Two satellites in asynchronous near-polar orbits — passing over a given spot on Earth at different times, looking at the same area within hours of each other — could catch some of these shorter-time-scale phenomena,” a NASA press release states.

The PREFIRE team expects to receive the first preliminary data within five to six days. The first pictures could be available after about a month. The data will be freely available to the public via NASA’s Atmospheric Science Data Center.

Julia Hager, Polar Journal AG

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