On Feb. 7, NASA is scheduled to launch a major, nearly billion-dollar satellite to a reserved spot in Earth's orbit. Sitting above even the International Space Station, the spacecraft called PACE (which stands for Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem) has a very big goal: to monitor our planet's health on an epic scale, starting from deep within its vast blue seas to far across its candy white clouds.
"We are studying the combined Earth system — it's not an ocean mission, it's not an atmosphere mission, it's not a land mission, it's an all-of-those-things mission," Jeremy Werdell, the mission's project scientist, said during a press briefing on Sunday. "What we're doing here with PACE is really the search for the microscopic, mostly invisible, universe in the sea, and in the sky, and, in some degrees, on land."
Those are definitely huge ideas, and we'll soon get into the awesome details of what Werdell means with these sentiments, but if you'd like to tune into the launch of PACE, here's what you need to know first.
What will NASA's PACE mission do?
PACE's mission can be divided into two overarching categories; the first has to do with Earth's massive, cavernous oceans.
"The oceans are 70% of our planet," Karen St. Germain, director of NASA's Earth Science Division, said during the briefing. "The impact the oceans have on our lives is enormous — and yet, the oceans are one of the least well-understood parts of the Earth."
To really put this into perspective, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), we have only explored a mere 5% of the ocean. We've barely scratched the surface of what could be hidden in our own planet's waters. "That means that 95 percent of our ocean is unknown," the organization writes.
But still, the ocean's routine carries on, guiding several major pathways in our lives. "It not only provides food that we eat and air that we breathe, but it helps regulate climate and weather," Werdell said. Plus, he emphasizes, the ocean provides compounds used in medicines and plays a part in the economy. Fisheries, after all, provide jobs. Even beaches rely on the ocean.
And what better way to study the ocean than from the vantage point of space?
"Boats cannot be everywhere all at once in the ocean," Werdell said. "It's a three-dimensional fluid."
With this in mind, one key goal of PACE — as its name certainly suggests — is to monitor the quantities and movements of underwater phytoplankton, which are microscopic organisms that stand at the crux of marine ecosystem health. Why phytoplankton specifically? Well, as Werdell says, phytoplankton sit at the base of the food chain. And, like your standard plant, they create energy through photosynthesis, taking in carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. Put those together, and this means phytoplankton control the way carbon moves through the entire ecosystem.