Answering bold questions about life and climate on Earth and other planets is the goal behind a new Space Act Agreement signed today between NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Northrop Grumman's Electronic Systems sector in a ceremony in the Miller Senate Building, Presidential Conference Center West at the Maryland State Capitol in Annapolis.
Through the agreement, researchers from the two Maryland-based organizations will collaborate on the development of advanced civil radar system architectures that can be leveraged into new space-based remote sensing instruments with revolutionary performance characteristics. These systems will help scientists measure with far greater accuracy, precision, and detail such things as the three-dimensional structure of Mars and other planets and heavenly bodies, as well as cloud composition and other characteristics on Earth to better understand climate change.
"We are bringing together two of Maryland's biggest employers for a project that has major implications for NASA and our understanding of Earth and the solar system in which we live," said Goddard Director Dr. Edward Weiler.
To make this technology a reality, Goddard plans to leverage Northrop Grumman's radar technology -- including space-qualified electronically scanned arrays, wideband electronics, and lightweight mesh antenna technology -- and combine it with its own remote sensing expertise, testing facilities, and insight into applications that would help scientists answer key space and Earth science questions.
"This is a strategic partnership that blends the best of Goddard's and Northrop Grumman's advanced sensing capabilities," said Dr. Laurie Leshin, Goddard's Deputy Director of Science and Technology. "Our goal is to expand NASA's instrument technologies, while advancing new and innovative space-based mission concepts capable of making critical science observations in support of NASA goals."
"Through this partnership, we can further develop and adapt our strong radar technologies to meet a variety of Earth and planetary science needs," said Joseph J. Ensor, vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman's Space & ISR Systems Division. "By pursuing joint research and development, Northrop Grumman and Goddard will also be able to explore new climate-related opportunities that arise."
Through this collaboration, researchers at Goddard and Northrop Grumman hope to demonstrate the feasibility of a smaller, lighter, less costly radar system for science and exploration initiatives.
"The mass, power, and other requirements of current planetary radar remote sensing instruments make them extremely challenging and costly to fly to Mars and icy moons such as Europa and Titan," said Dr. James Garvin, Goddard's planetary science lead on the agreement. "Having the compact, agile, and scientifically versatile technology that this agreement will produce can help us achieve entirely new, ultra-high resolution measurements of the surfaces and shallow interiors of not only Mars but also of icy satellites, asteroids, Venus, and Mercury, in a cost-effective fashion."
Garvin went on to explain how combining forces would enable missions to measure what is currently immeasurable here on Earth and on other planets in our solar system. "For example, we think the ice caps on Mars are a virtual record book of the planet's climatic history. But in order to really understand what's written there, we need to see into the ice caps at much higher resolution than is currently possible. The technology we're working on would help us peel back the layers of this climate data to better address the habitability of Mars."
Not only would the systems resulting from the partnership revolutionize the study of other planets, but they would also be a huge leap forward in helping Earth scientists understand climate change and the carbon cycle on our home planet.
"The current state of the art for measuring carbon biomass in forests involves measuring tree-trunk diameters with tape measures," said Dr. Peter Hildebrand, Goddard's Earth science lead on the collaborative project. "Since forests are huge, we obviously have a sampling problem. If instead we could use an advanced radar system to measure this from space, it would greatly improve our ability to measure the changes in forest carbon biomass as the climate changes."
Hildebrand said such sensing technology could also enable scientists to better understand the forces impacting climate change. "A smarter radar may be able to intelligently scan the atmosphere on the broad scale as well as concentrate more observations on areas where something important is happening, such as changes in cloud and precipitation characteristics," said Hildebrand. "We hope that this will improve our understanding of the relationship between radiation, weather, and climate, and thereby allow us to do a better job of forecasting what will happen in the future."
For example, in the current debate as to whether a rising climate causes more intense hurricanes, Hildebrand noted, "A better space weather radar may help explain which weather systems can grow into hurricanes, and which ones will not, and also to understand how ocean and atmospheric conditions feed into the genesis of hurricanes. This will improve forecasting of hurricanes and their track and intensity."