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In 2021, Hurricane Ida left over 1 million people without power, tornadoes tore across the American Midwest, volcanoes forced people to evacuate their homes, wildfires covered the American West and unusual flooding wreaked havoc on Central Europe.

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News and Events

Printed Wire Assemblies Back Online

To return function to 16 printed wire assemblies, including the two most recent, Terra’s Flight Operations Team rebooted Terra’s solid state recorder, on September 22, 2021. The successful reboot of Terra’s solid state recorder returned Terra to a level that allows full science acquisitions from all five instruments (ASTER, CERES, MISR, MODIS, and MOPITT). 

The recorder reboot took nearly 12 hours to complete. The board-by-board power up sequencing resulted in all 16 printed wire assemblies of the 16 offline assemblies returning to operational status.  Terra now has all 58 assemblies in service, and Terra’s data storage capacity is at the same level it had at launch. There are currently no known hardware limitations to the operation of Terra or any of its sensors and there is currently no official passivation (mission end) date. 

For over two decades Terra has collected valuable data about Earth’s systems. In February 2020 Terra stopped doing platform maneuvers that would control its equator crossing time in order to maintain fuel for collision avoidance maneuvers. The remaining fuel will also be used to lower Terra’s orbit as part of its eventual passivation process.  Now with the printed wire assemblies being returned to full function, Terra will be able to collect full data acquisitions from all five instruments throughout this process.

Terra will also continue collecting data after an orbit lowering maneuver planned for Fall 2022. The maneuver upholds agreements to ensure Terra is a safe distance from the other missions in the 705-km Earth Observing Satellite Constellation when fuel to maintain Terra’s orbit has been depleted.

“The science community views the changes in crossing time and orbit altitude as continuation of normal data collection for those products not affected by the orbital changes as well as an opportunity to do novel science with those that are affected,” according to Kurtis Thome, Terra Project Scientist.  The Terra Project fully expects the Terra platform and all five instruments to operate past 2026 allowing them to maintain their status as leaders in Earth science data production.  Terra’s long-term data record will continue to contribute to the Earth Science Division’s key science questions:

  • How is the global Earth system changing?
  • What causes these changes in the Earth system?
  • How will the Earth system change in the future?
  • How can Earth system science provide societal benefit?

Terra, the flagship Earth Observing Satellite, continues to be a leader in Earth science data, contributing to scientific research and applications worldwide, now with data capacity levels restored by a successful solid state recorder reboot.

On Wednesday, September 22, 2021, Terra’s Flight Operations Team will be rebooting Terra’s Solid-State Recorder (SSR). Terra’s nominal SSR operations will be offline for approximately 10 – 12 hours. The purpose of the Solid-State Recorder reboot is to restore function to the printed wire assemblies that are currently offline. During this period, many of the instruments will continue to collect data. However, data collected during this period will not be available (except for MODIS direct broadcast data) because the Solid-State Recorder, which stores the data until it can be downlinked, will not be online.

  • MISR – Normal Operations
  • MODIS – Normal Operations (Direct Broadcast will continue to be available)
  • MOPITT – Normal Operations
  • CERES – Safe Mode (no observations); CERES on other platforms ­– Aqua, Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (S-NPP) and NOAA-20 satellites will continue to operate as normal.
  • ASTER – Standby (no observations; nominal maneuver configuration)

Once the solid-state recorder reboot is completed, it is planned that all instruments and data collection will be restored to normal operations, including MODIS and MISR whose data were impacted by the most recent printed wire assembly anomalies in June, 2021.

Two printed wire assemblies (PWA) on the Terra satellite stopped working, resulting in lost data from the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) and the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on June 28th and June 29th, 2021.  Radiation from the Sun and deep space likely caused an overcurrent issue that stopped the printed wire assemblies from working.

“We have to manually send the update that says, don’t record to that PWA anymore, but until we do that it keeps trying to save data to the bad PWAs,” says Jason Hendrickson, Terra Flight Systems Manager.  Terra’s flight operations Team quickly worked to initiate commands to mark the printed wire assemblies as bad so that they were no longer used. During the time it took to initiate these commands, both MISR and MODIS lost data. However, repercussions from these non-functioning printed wire assemblies have longer lasting impacts ­– reduced storage capacity of MODIS and MISR data on Terra’s solid-state recorder.

Prior to these printed wire assemblies malfunctioning, fifteen other printed wire assembly stoppages had occurred, each time reducing Terra’s solid-state recorder data storage capacity. However, in 2001, after the first printed wire assembly stopped working, rebooting the solid-state recorder corrected the issue, restoring function. Now with only 43 of 59 printed wire assemblies functioning, data storage capacity has decreased to a critical point for MODIS and MISR.

In a working group meeting held in 2019, this scenario was discussed. All instrument teams made choices about what to do if any more printed wire assemblies stopped working. The options discussed included: downlinking data more frequently, reducing the number of science observations by MISR and MODIS, or rebooting the solid-state recorder in hopes that the printed wire assemblies begin to work again. Weighing the risks and benefits of these courses of action is not taken lightly.

“It takes less time to fill up the storage once we mark the printed wire assembly bad, but the same amount of data is being produced by the instruments as always,” says Dimitrios Mantziaras, Terra Mission Director. To keep all the data that is being produced by the instruments, the data would need to be downlinked more frequently. While this may sound easy, data downlink is limited by the number of passes Terra makes past Tracking and Data Relay Satellites. Without more of these satellites in Terra’s line of sight, data cannot be downlinked more regularly.

Another option is to reduce MODIS and MISR science observations.

“The impact on MODIS data is considered significant,” says Michael King, MODIS Instrument Lead. The MODIS science team is faced with choosing to record data from fewer bands or to accept gaps in their data.

MODIS typically operates with 50% of the orbit recording of daytime bands (all 36 bands), whereas the other 50% of the orbit records only 17 thermal bands (night mode).  The Flight Operations Team can reprogram the percentage split, extending the night mode data collection and decreasing the daytime data collection. This reduces the total amount of data that is collected between data dumps. However, daytime bands are essential for many MODIS data products including: ocean color and ocean optical property products, many atmospheric products, and many land products. Additionally, the daytime bands are important in an early part of data processing that identifies clear sky from clouds.  “The loss of the ability to record these bands and derive the corresponding products will affect time series of Earth observations over the course of the Terra mission, leaving gaps in data in the polar regions,” says King.

Similarly, MISR is faced with reducing about 6 minutes of data per orbit. To mitigate data loss, the MISR science team strategized trimming ascending node data collected near the poles (most, but not all, dayside data are acquired on the descending node when Terra is flying from north to south). “Near the summer and winter solstices the scientific impact is minor, but during fall and spring the required trimming includes either loss of descending node data at high latitudes in both hemispheres or choosing between Arctic or Antarctic coverage,” says David Diner, MISR Principal Investigator. To minimize impacts to the science community that relies on MISR data, the Arctic region — where MISR’s data significantly contributes to measuring sea ice minima, albedo decrease, and support of field campaigns — will be prioritized. “Unfortunately, this will curtail the long-term record of sea ice albedo, anthropogenic aerosol influences, and ice sheet breakup in southern polar regions, which have been the subject of published investigations by the science community,” says Diner.

While these options for data reduction come at costs, the teams are considering rebooting the solid-state recorder, which was done once in 2001. “There is no identifiable risk to doing the reset,” says Kurt Thome, Terra Project Scientist. The successful restart of the solid-state recorder in 2001 brought the first inoperative printed wire assembly back online. If a restart works, then MISR and/or MODIS could continue to collect data as was done prior to the recent malfunctions, potentially even returning Terra’s data storage capacity to the amount it had at launch.

As Terra continues to drift toward it’s expected constellation exit in fall of 2022, the Terra science and Flight Operations Teams continue to preserve Terra’s more than two-decades of data with as much continuity as possible, adding to Terra’s historic long-term data record of Earth observations.

Two printed wire assemblies on the Terra satellite failed, resulting in lost data from the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) and the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on June 28th and June 29th. The Terra Flight Operations Team, quickly worked to identify the location of the failures and initiate commands to prevent the solid state recorder from trying to use those locations. Data for both instruments is now continuing to be collected. However, data that is collected may be at a reduced quantity, but not decreased quality.

Comparison of overlapping one-year estimates at 6-month intervals of net top-of-the-atmosphere annual energy flux from CERES (solid orange line) and an in situ observational estimate of uptake of energy by Earth climate system (solid turquoise line).
Credits: NASA/Tim Marvel

Researchers have found that Earth’s energy imbalance approximately doubled during the 14-year period from 2005 to 2019.

Earth’s climate is determined by a delicate balance between how much of the Sun’s radiative energy is absorbed in the atmosphere and at the surface and how much thermal infrared radiation Earth emits to space. A positive energy imbalance means the Earth system is gaining energy, causing the planet to heat up. The doubling of the energy imbalance is the topic of a recent study, the results of which were published June 15 in Geophysical Research Letters.

Scientists at NASA and NOAA compared data from two independent measurements. NASA’s Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) suite of satellite sensors measure how much energy enters and leaves Earth’s system. In addition, data from a global array of ocean floats, called Argo, enable an accurate estimate of the rate at which the world’s oceans are heating up. Since approximately 90 percent of the excess energy from an energy imbalance ends up in the ocean, the overall trends of incoming and outgoing radiation should broadly agree with changes in ocean heat content.

“The two very independent ways of looking at changes in Earth’s energy imbalance are in really, really good agreement, and they’re both showing this very large trend, which gives us a lot of confidence that what we’re seeing is a real phenomenon and not just an instrumental artifact, ” said Norman Loeb, lead author for the study and principal investigator for CERES at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. “The trends we found were quite alarming in a sense.”

Increases in emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane due to human activity trap heat in the atmosphere, capturing outgoing radiation that would otherwise escape into space. The warming drives other changes, such as snow and ice melt, and increased water vapor and cloud changes that can further enhance the warming. Earth’s energy imbalance is the net effect of all these factors. In order to determine the primary factors driving the imbalance, the investigators used a method that looked at changes in clouds, water vapor, combined contributions from trace gases and the output of light from the Sun, surface albedo (the amount of light reflected by the Earth’s surface), tiny atmospheric particles called aerosols, and changes in surface and atmospheric temperature distributions.

The study finds that the doubling of the imbalance is partially the result an increase in greenhouse gases due to human activity, also known as anthropogenic forcing, along with increases in water vapor are trapping more outgoing longwave radiation, further contributing to Earth’s energy imbalance. Additionally, the related decrease in clouds and sea ice lead to more absorption of solar energy.

The researchers also found that a flip of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) from a cool phase to a warm phase likely played a major role in the intensification of the energy imbalance. The PDO is a pattern of Pacific climate variability. Its fingerprint includes a massive wedge of water in the eastern Pacific that goes through cool and warm phases. This naturally occurring internal variability in the Earth system can have far-reaching effects on weather and climate. An intensely warm PDO phase that began around 2014 and continued until 2020 caused a widespread reduction in cloud coverage over the ocean and a corresponding increase in the absorption of solar radiation.

“It’s likely a mix of anthropogenic forcing and internal variability,” said Loeb. “And over this period they’re both causing warming, which leads to a fairly large change in Earth’s energy imbalance. The magnitude of the increase is unprecedented.”

Loeb cautions that the study is only a snapshot relative to long-term climate change, and that it’s not possible to predict with any certainty what the coming decades might look like for the balance of Earth’s energy budget. The study does conclude, however, that unless the rate of heat uptake subsides, greater changes in climate than are already occurring should be expected.

“The lengthening and highly complementary records from Argo and CERES have allowed us both to pin down Earth’s energy imbalance with increasing accuracy, and to study its variations and trends with increasing insight, as time goes on.” said Gregory Johnson, co-author on the study and physical oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Washington. “Observing the magnitude and variations of this energy imbalance are vital to understanding Earth’s changing climate.”

Joe Atkinson
NASA’s Langley Research Center
Last Updated: Jun 16, 2021Editor: Joe Atkinson

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