Suggested Searches

3 min read

PACE Celebrates National Ocean Month With Colorful Views of the Planet

Credit: NASA/Ryan Fitzgibbons

What do you give to an ocean that has everything? This year, for National Ocean Month, NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite— is gifting us a unique look at our home planet. The visualizations created with data from the satellite, which launched on Feb. 8, are already enhancing the ways that we view our seas and skies. 

The PACE satellite views our entire planet every day, returning data at a cadence that allows scientists to track and monitor the rapidly changing atmosphere and ocean, including cloud formation, aerosol movement, and differences in microscopic ocean life over time.

The visualization starts with a view of swaths of Earth from PACE’s Ocean Color Instrument. The Ocean Color Instrument observes Earth in ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared light — over 200 wavelengths. With this level of detail, scientists can now, from space, regularly identify specific communities of phytoplankton — tiny organisms floating near the surface of the ocean that serve as the center of the marine food web. This is a major advance, as different types of phytoplankton play different roles in ocean ecosystems and health.

A graphic image of Earth sits upon a black background with the words "PACE Instrument: OCI" in white text in the top left corner. The planet is overlayed with real imagery with portions
PACE orbits Earth in this visualization, exposing a swath of true color imagery.
NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

Zooming in, the visualization shows the ecosystems and surrounding atmosphere off the United States’ East Coast and The Bahamas on March 21. Like previous satellites, the Ocean Color Instrument can detect chlorophyll in the ocean, which indicates the presence and abundance of phytoplankton. The Ocean Color Instrument adds to this by allowing scientists to determine the types of phytoplankton present, such as the three different types of phytoplankton identified in the visualization.

An image of the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast of the United States is overlayed with splotches of color representing data. Only the ocean is covered by these data points, which are bright green near the coast and a lighter blue as it extends further into the ocean.
False color data visualization of phytoplankton (Picoeukaryotes and Prochlorococcus), as observed by PACE’s Ocean Color instrument (OCI).
NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

The portion of the swirls in green indicate the presence of picoeukaryotes, organisms which are smaller than 0.3 micrometers in size — 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. In light blue are prochlorococcus, the smallest known organism to turn sunlight into energy (photosynthesis); they account for a major fraction of all photosynthesis that occurs in the ocean. The portion of the bloom in bright pink indicates synechococcus, a phytoplankton group that can color the water light pink when many are present in a small area.

False color data visualization of phytoplankton (Picoeukaryotes and Synechococcus), as observed by PACE’s OCI instrument.
NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

These are just three of the thousands of types of phytoplankton, and just the start of what the Ocean Color Instrument will be able to identify.

The PACE satellite’s two polarimeters, Hyper-Angular Rainbow Polarimeter #2 (HARP2) and Spectro-polarimeter for Planetary Exploration one (SPEXone), provide a unique view of Earth’s atmosphere, helping scientists learn more about clouds and small particles called aerosols. The polarimeters measure light that reflects off of these particles. By learning more about the interactions between clouds and aerosols, these data will ultimately help make climate models more accurate. Additionally, aerosols can degrade air quality, so monitoring their properties and movement is important for human health.

An image of the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast of the United States is overlayed with splotches of color representing data. The colors range from light yellow to dark orange, and across the large splotches is a diagonal line of dark red - a swath of separate data.
Aerosols, as observed by PACE’s HARP2 and SPEXone instruments.
NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

In the visualization, the large swath of HARP2 data shows the concentration of aerosols in the air for that particular day. These data — a measure of the light scattering and absorbing properties of aerosols — help scientists not only locate the aerosols, but identify the type. Near the coast, the aerosols are most likely smoke from fires in the U.S. southeast. Adding detail to the visualization and the science, the thin swath of SPEXone data furthers the information by showing the aerosol particle size.

Over the next year, PACE scientists aim to create the first global maps of phytoplankton communities and glean new insights into how fisheries and aquatic resources are responding to Earth’s changing climate.

NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) spacecraft was specifically designed to study the invisible universe of Earth’s sea and sky from the vantage point of space. We’ve measured 4-6 colors of the rainbow for decades, which has enabled us to “see” phytoplankton from space through the lens of its primary photosynthetic pigment, chlorophyll-a. PACE’s primary instrument is the first of its kind to measure all the colors of the rainbow, every day, everywhere. That means we can identify the type of phytoplankton behind the chlorophyll-a. Different types of phytoplankton have different effects on the food web, on water management, and on the climate, via their impact on the carbon cycle.
NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio

By Erica McNamee

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Share

Details

Last Updated
Jun 07, 2024
Editor
Kate D. Ramsayer
Contact
Erica McNamee
Location
Goddard Space Flight Center