NASA’s mission to study ice clouds helps us monitor our changing atmosphere

A new NASA mission called PolSIR, short for Polarized Submillimeter Ice-Cloud Radiometer, will study high-altitude ice clouds like this one seen from the International Space Station in 2008. Understanding how clouds change throughout the day is critical to optimization. Global climate models. Credit: NASA

NASA has chosen a new mission to help humanity better understand Earth’s changing atmosphere — specifically, ice clouds that form at high altitudes in the tropics and subtropics.

The PolSIR instrument—short for Polarized Submillimeter Ice-Cloud Radiometer—will study such ice clouds to determine how and why they change throughout the day. This will provide important information on how to accurately simulate these high clouds in global climate models.

The probe consists of two identical CubeSats — each small satellite a little over a foot tall — flying in orbits separated by three to nine hours. Over time, these two instruments track the daily cycle of ice content of clouds.

„Studying snow clouds is critical to improving climate forecasts — and this is the first time we’ve studied snow clouds in this level of detail,” said Nicola Fox, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. „Each NASA mission is carefully selected to better understand our own planet.”

Life-cycle award of no more than $37 million, excluding launch costs. A radiometer is an Earth Venture instrument – ​​a low-cost instrument with a targeted research mission that can usually ride alongside another mission or commercial satellite to reduce launch costs. The Earth Venture class is focused on providing frequent flight opportunities, so innovative science probes can fly relatively quickly, typically within five years or less. Missions such as these provide important targeted research opportunities that can help improve our understanding of what is driving change in the entire Earth system.

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„Understanding how these ice clouds respond to a changing climate — and then, contribute to further changes — is one of the great challenges in predicting what the atmosphere will do in the future,” said Karen St. Germain, who leads NASA. Department of Earth Sciences. „Radiometers that measure the radiant energy emitted by clouds will significantly improve our understanding of how snow clouds change and respond throughout the day.”

The work is led by Principal Investigator Ralph Pennards of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and Deputy Principal Investigator Tang Wu of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

NASA Goddard will provide the project management team to build the two instruments, while science operations will be conducted by the Center for Space Science and Engineering at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Both spacecraft will be built by Blue Canyon Technologies in Lafayette, Colorado.

For more information on NASA’s Earth science missions, visit:

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