Who knew you could see plankton from space? NASA of course. The space agency today successfully launched a new mission called PACE – short for the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem satellite – that will study its namesake.
It will examine microscopic plants and particles – things so small they are invisible to the naked eye – from hundreds of kilometers above Earth. The goal is to better understand how such tiny things can actually impact the entire planet.
“PACE will help us learn like never before how particles in our atmosphere and our oceans can identify key factors influencing global warming,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a news release.
The goal is to better understand how such tiny things can actually impact the entire planet
Phytoplankton in particular plays a crucial role in the world’s oceans. NASA even has an entertaining video on YouTube about why they are “insanely important,” complete with fake action figures of the “microscopic warriors fighting for the sea.” What the video calls “phytofighters” are actually microscopic plants that absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen through photosynthesis. It is that ability to absorb the carbon dioxide that is warming the planet that makes them an important ally in the fight against climate change.
“PACE observations and scientific research will profoundly advance our understanding of the ocean’s role in the climate cycle,” Karen St. Germain, director of the Earth Sciences Division of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, said in the press release.
Plankton also form the basis of ocean food chains, making them extremely important to the health of marine ecosystems and fisheries. There are tens of thousands of different species of phytoplankton, each of which has unique interactions with its environment: some beneficial and some potentially harmful, such as toxic algae blooms called red tides.
While a red tide is an extreme example, different species of phytoplankton can make the sea surface appear to be different colors – albeit in ways that are often too subtle for the human eye to detect.
The hyperspectral ocean color instrument carried by the PACE satellite will make observations in ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared light spectra. This allows scientists for the first time from space to distinguish between species of phytoplankton based on their unique color. They can use that data to find out what types of organisms are out there and detect changes in the sea that could affect ecosystems and coastal communities that depend on them.
Two other instruments on board the spacecraft will study particles in the atmosphere, especially aerosols that can affect air quality. “Aerosols are very important to human health, so that’s why we really need to quantify what’s there – like what type of aerosols are there and where they come from,” said Meng Gao, head of PACE polarimetry data science and software, in another NASA video posted in December.
The funny thing is that decades of work cleaning up aerosol pollution has been a double-edged sword. Aerosol particles, and some of the clouds that can form around them, can reflect solar radiation back into space. Fewer aerosols in the atmosphere could therefore unintentionally accelerate global warming. Two toaster-sized instruments on PACE are called polarimeters, which can detect what types of aerosols are present based on the way they reflect light. Knowing what types of aerosols exist can help scientists refine climate models so they can make more accurate predictions for the future.
There are also a few sci-fi-sounding scenarios that this kind of research could feasibly support one day. There has been early research into ways to potentially increase carbon dioxide uptake by phytoplankton by providing them with more nutrients. There have also been headlines lately about a startup’s rogue attempts to launch aerosol cans into the atmosphere to halt global warming.
The startup quickly faced backlash — including the Mexican government banning its experiments — due to the potential planetary consequences of attempts to deliberately manipulate Earth’s atmosphere. Tinkering with the oceans and atmosphere in this way falls within the realm of so-called geoengineering, which continues to face fierce opposition from researchers and environmentalists concerned about unintended consequences.
The PACE satellite launched at 1:33 a.m. ET on Thursday from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.