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Why is NASA Spying on Plankton from Space?

Jul 18, 2014 04:32 PM EDT

NASA is bringing together marine and atmospheric scientists for a very unusual purpose. The space agency says that it wants to spy on phytoplankton from space.

Starting July 20, NASA's Ship-Aircraft Bio-Optical Research (SABOR) team will make coordinated flights over the Earth's oceans in the UC-12 airborne laboratory, testing new tools that can collect in-depth data on phytoplankton even from remarkable heights.

So why spy on the microscopic plants that cover the Earth's oceans? According to NASA, phytoplankton absorb carbon and pump out fresh oxygen, making them instrumental to the sea's fish and other oxygen breathers. Due to their amazing prevalence, they also play a huge part in the global cycling of atmospheric carbon levels - a hot topic in the wake of recent climate talks.

"By improving our in-water and aircraft-based measurements of particles and material in the ocean, including phytoplankton, SABOR will advance understanding of marine ecology and the carbon cycle," Paula Bontempi, an ocean biology and biogeochemistry program manager for NASA, said in a recent statement.

Aboard the UC-12, SABOR researchers will deploy a polarmeter instrument that can measure properties of reflected light in the atmosphere - properties that normally interfere with high-elevation readings of the Earth's oceans.

Accounting for these polarmeter readings, the researchers hope to correct for other next-generation technologies aboard the UC-12, which can observe phytoplankton populations and properties at various water depths even from an altitude of about 30,000 feet.

According to NASA, the resulting "vertical distribution data" will serve in the same way a slice of cake tells you exactly how the whole cake was made - from thickness of layer to each individual filling.

The resulting blueprint of phytoplankton distribution will allow NASA scientists to improve satellite estimates of global populations, likewise improving predictions of how much carbon dioxide will be absorbed by the ocean in the future.

Simultaneously, ships on the surface of the water and instruments below will take their own measurements, offering a picture of the all-important plankton from every conceivable angle.

"The goal is to develop mathematical relationships that allow scientists to calculate the biomass of the phytoplankton from optical signals measured from space, and thus to be able to monitor how ocean phytoplankton change from year to year and figure out what causes these changes," project co-leader Mike Behrenfeld explained.

SABOR researchers set out on Friday aboard the National Science Foundation's Research Vessel Endeavor, and will take to the skies this weekend.

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