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National Aeronautics and Space Administration

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Research Programs & Theme

NASA Earth Science research is built around the creation of new scientific knowledge about the Earth system. The analysis and interpretation of data from NASA’s satellites form the heart of this program although a full range of underlying scientific activities needed to interpret and utilize satellite data is also included. The complexity of the Earth system, in which spatial and temporal variability exists on a range of scales, requires that an organized scientific approach be developed for addressing the complex, interdisciplinary problems that exist, taking good care that in doing so there is a recognition of the objective to integrate science across the programmatic elements towards a comprehensive understanding of the Earth system. These elements are organized into six interdisciplinary science Focus Areas:

  • Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems,
  • Water and Energy Cycle,
  • Climate Variability and Change,
  • Atmospheric Composition,
  • Weather, and
  • Earth Surface and Interior.
Within the Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems Focus Area, there are three disciplinary program elements and one research theme:
  • Land Cover and Land Use Change Program
  • Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry Program
  • Terrestrial Ecology Program
  • Biodiversity Theme


The Earth Science Research Program is built around three related components—Research and Analysis (R&A), mission science teams, and Earth Observing System (EOS) science. The R&A program serves as the “scientific base” for the overall Earth science endeavor. It is where basic scientific questions are recognized and addressed, where techniques (laboratory, field observations, modeling, and data integration) are developed, and where much of the infrastructure (especially for the instrumentation and scientific capability for calibration, validation, and modeling) is supported. The R&A program is organized around a recognized set of scientific disciplines and works to assure both present-day capability and longer-term innovative potential for the entire Earth science program. The open nature of the R&A program makes it the home for much of the training of future Earth system scientists. The mission science teams are the entities that work to most directly provide scientific results for NASA’s Earth science missions. They focus on the development of retrieval algorithms and the quantitative use of NASA satellite data, both alone and in context of other satellite missions and suborbital activity, to address NASA’s scientific questions. The EOS science program provides for enhanced calibration and validation activities that support the entire Earth science flight program and for a modeling and analysis program that emphasizes interdisciplinary scientific questions of broader scope than those addressed in the R&A program.

Earth system science is inherently interdisciplinary, and much of the cutting-edge science requires integration of techniques from multiple disciplines and data from multiple satellites, as well as that of space-based and suborbital data. In addition, the exacting requirements for calibration and validation for Earth science satellite products require the maintenance of an extensive set of surface-, aircraft-, and balloon-based observational capabilities that can be used to support satellite validation, as well as provide complementary observations that can be integrated with them. In meeting these challenges, the Earth Science research program both draws heavily on and contributes to, related activities in high end computing, suborbital science, applied sciences, and data management. This program is closely coordinated with those of its national and international partners, through domestic interagency activities (such as those under the Climate Change Science Program, the U.S. Group on Earth Observations, and the Ocean Action Plan) and international scientific partnerships (e.g., the World Climate Research Program, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, and the International Polar Year).

For more information, please see the Science Plan: For NASA’s Science Mission Directorate 2007–2016.