Beyond Earth Day Every Day

Pioneering discoveries that move Earth science forward

By Ricki Watkins
In order to protect our planet, we must first understand how it works.

How does pollution impact global weather and climate? How has the planet changed in the past 40 years? How healthy is the Earth’s ozone layer?

Ball Aerospace’s reliable and innovative remote sensing technologies are helping answer critical questions like these every day by providing scientists, policy makers and stakeholders the information they need to understand the current state of and track long-term changes in our air, land mass and oceans.

“Earth science data is essential to helping us manage our natural resources and avoid and respond to natural disasters,” said Paula Wamsley, Earth science business development lead for Ball. “Oftentimes, satellites are the only method we have to make the global measurements we need to understand our world.”

Ball’s instruments and spacecraft collect data on all aspects of Earth science, from oceans to ice and from ozone to weather. Be it pioneering discoveries or continuing long-term science records, Ball is dedicated to moving Earth science forward.


Ball is always searching for ways to improve how we collect Earth science data – from designing more affordable collection methods to determining how we can make a measurement for the first time.

“For advancing science, I don’t necessarily want to make the best measurement possible, I want to make the first measurement because that is what brings out the surprises,” Wamsley said.

Revealing those untouched scientific questions with initial measurements and following up with more specialized measurement capabilities makes the Ball Earth-observing satellite teams tick.

“We work closely with principal investigators to design instruments and missions that help them go beyond their original science goals,” Wamsley said.

Take, for example, Ball’s LiDAR system that has been riding on NASA’s CALIPSO satellite for more than a decade and has fired more than five billion laser shots from space in order to study how clouds and aerosols impact the Earth’s climate.

“The CALIPSO laser not only exceeded its planned design life, but also, over time, Earth scientists discovered that CALIPSO can ‘see’ into the ocean and it wasn't ever designed to do that,” Wamsley said.

CALIPSO has enabled scientists to witness the foundation of the oceanic food chain in addition to giving the world its first-ever, long-term aerosol climatology data record.

Through targeted research and development and technology maturation programs that align with the Decadal Survey, Ball engineers are working to develop innovative technologies that will give us first-time measurements of pollution, wind, and methane.

A Breath of Fresh Air: Monitoring Daylight Pollution

Most satellites pass over a given spot on Earth at the same time of day – this is the result of flying in a sun-synchronous orbit. However, this limits scientists’ ability to understand how environmental factors, such as air pollution, fluctuate throughout the course of an entire day.

TEMPO will be the first space-based ultraviolet/visible light air quality spectrometer in geostationary orbit.Ball is currently building the first air pollution monitoring instrument designed to fly in geostationary orbit, giving the instrument the unique ability to take air pollution measurements over North America every daylight hour. This revolutionary new data set will enable researchers to make county level maps of pollution levels, monitor daily and seasonal trends, and evaluate emission-control strategies. This mission, known as
Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO), is the first funded project of NASA's Earth Venture Instrument program.

Written in the Wind: A Better Way to Collect Wind Profiles

Weather forecasters depend on accurate temperature, water vapor and wind measurements to predict severe weather events. Currently, wind speed is most commonly measured using weather balloons, which are sent up twice a day, every day, from hundreds of locations across the globe. Unfortunately, that means that little or no wind profile data is collected over our oceans, where much of the Earth’s severe weather forms.

But a space-based LiDAR instrument like the Ball ATHENA-OAWL could provide twice as many measurements as the weather balloons. Ball continues to advance this laser-based Optical Autocovariance Wind Lidar (OAWL) technology, which could produce wind profile measurements over more than 80 percent of Earth’s surface. This will give forecasters access to 3D wind profiles for the very first time, helping to increase our understanding of low and mid-latitude weather and climate.

Methane Leak Detection: Protecting Lives and Property

According to the U.S. Energy Information Association, about 50 percent of U.S. households use natural gas for heating. An extensive infrastructure system is used to transport natural gas from wells to consumers around the U.S. In fact, there is enough gas pipeline (more than 2 million miles) in the country to reach to the moon and back five times! Monitoring the health of these pipelines is critical to ensuring that natural gas, which is composed primarily of the greenhouse gas methane, does not leak into the atmosphere.

Ball is currently under contract to test and mature several pipeline monitoring technologies that will help identify methane leaks quickly and efficiently.


Continuing Long-term Science Records

While new discoveries give us exciting glimpses into the dynamics of Earth’s ecosystems, consistent, long-term science records give us an equally important understanding of how the Earth has changed over the years.

“Ball supports several continuity programs, providing researchers and forecasters a constant and reliable data record,” Wamsley said.

Robust Resource Planning: 40 Years of Land Images

Since 1972, the Landsat Program has gathered multispectral imagery from space that has provided continuous land surface observations, creating an archive unmatched in quality, detail, coverage and length. Data from the Landsat series of satellites enables the nation to manage its resources effectively, including making routine drought assessments and planning fire prevention; monitoring land changes; effectively planning land uses; and understanding the Earth’s ecosystem dynamics. Landsat is a joint effort between the U.S. Geological Survey and NASA.

Landsat 8 captured these pictures of Mount Adams in Washington before and after the Cougar Creek fire. Responders rely on images like these to quickly identify post-fire risks. Landsat imagery courtesy USGS/NASA Landsat.The Ball-built Operational Land Imager (OLI) instrument aboard Landsat 8, which launched in 2013, is continuing the program’s more than 40-year record of Earth observations. OLI’s innovative design significantly enhances performance. The instrument can also “see” in two new spectral bands, giving researchers more information about the world’s water resources and coastal zones and cirrus clouds.

As Ball’s OLI instrument continues to go beyond expectations for on-orbit performance, NASA recently awarded the company a contract to build OLI-2 for Landsat 9, which is slated to launch in 2023.

Actionable Weather Data for Immediate Response

Every day forecasters rely on weather satellites like the Ball-built Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite, to predict global forecasts three to seven days in advance of significant weather events, including hurricanes and winter storms. 
Suomi NPP captured this night-time image of the historic blizzard that hit the East Coast in January 2015. Credits: NOAA/NASA
In fact, a study by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts discovered that without polar-orbiting satellites like Suomi NPP, forecast models would have inaccurately predicted the landfall of Hurricane Sandy on the New Jersey shore in 2012 by three or four days. Early warnings gave residents more time to evacuate and prepare for the storm, helping save countless lives and limit property damage.

Launched in 2011, Suomi NPP continues NASA’s Earth Observing System, a series of Earth-observing satellites launched over the past decade, and is a bridge between NOAA’s Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellites and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). Ball is currently building and integrating JPSS-1, which will continue Suomi NPP’s weather and climate record.


Turning undertanding into action

Through space-based and airborne instruments and sensors, we are able to learn more about the Earth every day. And with this understanding, we can pioneer discoveries and take action to protect our planet and our people.

CloudSat and CALIPSO deliver critical Earth science data

For the past 10 years, NASA’s CloudSat and CALIPSO missions have helped to improve our understanding of how clouds and aerosols impact climate. Learn how scientists are using the data from these missions to better understand our world.