Considering the space shuttle lifts off carrying 500,000 gallons (1.8 million liters) of fuel ready to burn, NASA doesn't usually top many lists of conservation-minded organizations [source: NASA]. And the 5,500 tons (4,989 metric tons) of litter floating around up there from decades of spaceflights doesn't help things, either [source: redOrbit].
But there's more to NASA than space travel. NASA is, at its core, a scientific organization (and a pretty well-funded one at that) that's coming up with solutions to problems. Those problems may be how to get a Mars rover's power supply replenished or repair a shuttle's insulation material while in space. But those problems are often much more grounded in daily life on Earth.
NASA does more in the Earth-sciences arena than many of us realize. And these days, that means environmental science. Once you get past the iconic, exhaust-filled image of shuttle liftoff, NASA is actually making significant contributions to the health of Earth and those who inhabit it. After all, NASA is part owner of one of the most impressive all-solar-powered residences in the universe.
Space-based technology reinterpreted for life on Earth is a huge part of NASA's positive effects on the environment, but it doesn't end there. In this article, we'll run down five of the most critical ways NASA is helping Earth survive its environmental predicament.
You may be surprised to find out that NASA is a regular collaborator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). We'll begin our list there: No. 5 is NASA's role in air-quality research.
When the world first started focusing on the state of its atmosphere, the point was less the greenhouse effect and more the health of the land and those who lived on it. Air pollution -- in the form of sulfur dioxide, mercury, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and particulate matter, among other pollutants -- has long-term effects on crops, farmland, sea life and human beings.
One of NASA's longstanding and most successful areas of research is in observational technology; and as it turns out, these high-tech observation systems can open up a whole new world of tracking and understanding Earth's air quality.
One such piece of equipment is the High Spectral Resolution Lidar (HSRL). It's a lidar device, which is kind of like radar but instead of radio waves, it uses laser beams. Scientists use this NASA instrument, mounted on a small aircraft, to measure aerosols -- particles in the air.
In a recent study, NASA teamed up with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to measure smoke aerosols emitted during a wildfire in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in April 2009. As soon as the fire started to burn, scientists boarded a plane and started measuring the aerosols that were clouding the air.
The data gathered from NASA's HSRL technology will help the EPA gain a better understanding of how wildfires affect air quality and develop more effective standards and guidelines for keeping the air clean.
Up next is the environmental topic that's on everyone's mind.
As far as eco-concerns go, global warming is the potentially catastrophic issue du jour. And like most scientific organizations today, NASA is pitching in.
One recent climate-change study uses NASA's airborne radar devices. Two new radars, which are testing devices for a space-based radar system in development, left for Iceland and Greenland in May 2009 to study the flow of glaciers and map the surface topography of the areas' ice. The findings from the two-month mission will help scientists better understand the effects of global warming and what the future holds for the world's ice masses.
Another study is using NASA's carbon-detecting satellites to measure the emissions from Asian wildfires. Drought, along with burning forests to make crop land, leaves Asia so prone to wildfires that between 1997 and 1998, emissions from these fires accounted for 40 percent of the world's carbon output [source: NASA]. NASA scientists are gathering satellite data on the fires' emissions in order to better understand the full effects of these fires so Asian officials can better balance food-production needs with the long-term needs of the environment.
Up next is a topic that goes hand in hand with the climate-change issue.
Fossil fuels are in limited supply and are flooding the atmosphere with harmful greenhouse gasses, so the hunt for effective, bountiful and clean energy sources is in overdrive. NASA already uses primarily clean-burning hydrogen fuel in the space shuttle. The organization also directs research into fuel for Earth-bound technologies.
One NASA study is focusing on using principles of life in space to make clean fuel for life on Earth.
When astronauts travel to space, they're living in a closed system. They have to bring everything they need with them, and space is limited. So whatever they have on hand should do as many jobs as possible. An extreme example of this is cleaning astronauts' urine so it can then be used as drinking water.
The latest NASA idea for renewable energy actually comes from the organization's research into new ways to recycle wastewater on missions.
NASA scientists have developed a method of deriving clean fuel from algae. Many species of algae produce oil.
The idea is to place semipermeable membranes filled with wastewater out in the ocean. Algae will grow in the membranes, feeding on the nutrients in the waste. The byproduct is biofuels, which will then be harvested from the bags. The added bonuses are that the only other byproducts of the process are oxygen and water (algae perform photosynthesis), and the algae "treat" the waste by consuming it, so it doesn't pollute the oceans.
Up next on the list is a more far-reaching approach to environmental health -- and one that NASA does particularly well.
With the Earth in what some would call a state of emergency, individual projects aren't enough. Some of NASA's greatest work is in the area of educating the public about the Earth in general. By increasing interest in Earth, people not only gain knowledge about the planet but also may be more likely to care about taking care of it.
In terms of spreading knowledge of and interest in the Earth, it doesn't get much better than NASA's Earth Observatory. It's an online collection of photographs taken by NASA's satellites, and it offers anyone with Internet access some of the most incredible views of Earth ever captured. It shows close-up orbital views of extreme weather, far-off views of the planet as a whole and specific features like active volcanoes. The Web site is even used by scientists working on Earth science research and by educators looking for a better understanding of Earth's climate, atmosphere and topography for themselves and their students.
NASA also takes a more active approach to education in programs like FIRST. FIRST is an international robotics competition for students, held each year with thousands of aspiring engineers attending from dozens of countries. The idea is that encouraging kids' science and engineering talents will produce new generations of scientists able to solve the world's biggest problems, including global warming, energy issues, pollution and countless other issues affecting the environment. It's a long-term approach that has the potential to bear much greater fruits than any particular research project or piece of technology.
Up next, No. 1 on our list is a NASA research area that could someday save the environment in a much more dramatic, immediate way than any other topic we've discussed so far.
Earth is always at risk of a collision with a near-Earth object. NASA is constantly monitoring countless asteroids flying around in space, some of which are traveling in near-Earth orbits -- objects that could hit Earth. The chances are small, but the danger is there. The biggest of these objects could do severe damage, possibly wiping out huge parts of Earth's environment.
NASA has been following 99942 Apophis, for instance -- one huge near-Earth object (NEO) that, until recently, had a 2.7 percent chance of hitting Earth in 2029 [source: NASA]. NASA's research has shown that the 2029 approach will not be a hit, but that the movement into Earth's gravitational pull could alter the path of the asteroid enough to make it harder to predict the chances of a hit in 2036. Currently, those chances are considered to be 1 in 6,250 [source: NASA].
What to do? NASA is not just tracking these asteroids; it's also researching ways to avoid a hit. NASA scientists have looked into such methods as a gravity-tractor method of deflecting a collision. In that scenario, a spacecraft would either land on or orbit the near-Earth object, essentially pulling it out of a collision course by altering the gravitational pull.
If it comes to that, near-Earth object research will do more to save the environment than all the alternative-energy research, education and pollution studies combined. NASA could literally save the world.
For more information on NASA, the environment and related topics, look over the links on the next page.
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Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- "Arctic Trek to 'Break the Ice' on New NASA Airborne Radars." NASA. April 30, 2009.http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/arctic-20090429.html
- "Earth." NASA.http://nasascience.nasa.gov/earth-science
- "FIRST Championship Ignites Students' Scientific Savvy: Discovering the Excitement of Science and Technology." NASA. April 19, 2009.http://www.nasa.gov/topics/technology/features/first-robotics.html
- "How NASA Studies Air." NASA.http://kids.earth.nasa.gov/air.htm
- "NASA's Earth Observatory: A Decade of Earth Science on Display." NASA. April 29, 2009.http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/EO_decade.html
- "NASA Envisions "Clean Energy" From Algae Grown in Waste Water." NASA. April 22, 2009.http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/clean_energy_042209.html
- "NASA Study Says Climate Adds Fuel to Asian Wildfire Emissions." NASA. April 30, 2009.http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/asian_fires.html
- "Near-Earth Object (NEO) Analysis of Transponder Tracking and Gravity Tractor Performance." NASA. October 2008.http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/neo/b612_report.html
- "Predicting Apophis' Earth Encounters in 2029 and 2036." NASA.http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/apophis/
- "South Carolina Wildfire Offers Langley Researchers Close-up Look at Smoke." NASA. May 8, 2009.http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/myrtlebeachfires.html
- "Turning the Tide to Energy: New Concept Could Harness the Power of Ocean Waves." NASA. March 5, 2009.http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/tideenergy.html