CSU Atmospheric Scientists Lead $177 Million NASA Mission to Study Thunderstorms in the Tropics

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NASA has announced a $177 million Earth science mission led by Colorado State University that will study the behavior of storms in the Tropics, with the goal of better representing these storms in weather and climate models.

The mission will be a collection of three small satellites, flying in tight coordination, and is called Investigation of Convective Updrafts (INCUS). It is expected to launch in 2027 as part of NASA’s Earth Venture Program.

INCUS’ principal investigator is Susan van den Heever, professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science, whose expertise is in cloud physics, cloud dynamics, and mesoscale meteorology and modeling. The team includes Kristen Rasmussen, assistant professor in atmospheric science; and Steven Reising, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. CSU’s Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere will perform data processing for the mission, overseen by Phil Partain.

The project will directly address why convective storms, heavy precipitation, and clouds occur exactly when and where they form. The investigation stems from the 2017 Earth Science Decadal Survey by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which lays out ambitious, but critically necessary, research and observation guidance.

The INCUS mission will be focused particularly on the vertical motions through storms, explained van den Heever, who has led several cutting-edge field campaigns focused on severe weather. These vertical motions play critical roles in storm intensity, in the formation of high clouds – and hence climate change – and in large-scale atmospheric circulations. Despite their critical importance, these vertical motions are often poorly represented in weather forecasting and climate models, van den Heever said. That’s where the INCUS observations will come in, filling gaps in scientists’ understanding of these motions.

“I am extremely excited to work with the very talented INCUS team to make these ground-breaking observations, which will better prepare us for predictions of extreme weather in current and future climates,” van den Heever said.

Addressing key Earth science questions
NASA selected INCUS through the agency’s Earth Venture Mission-3 (EVM-3) solicitation that sought complete, space-based investigations to address important scientific questions and produce data of societal relevance within the Earth science field. NASA received 12 proposals for EVM-3 missions in March 2021. After a detailed review by panels of scientists and engineers, the agency selected INCUS to continue into development.

Climate change is increasing the heat in the oceans and making it more likely that storms will intensify more often and more quickly, a phenomenon NASA scientists continue to study.

Storms begin with rapidly rising water vapor and air that create towering clouds primed to produce rain, hail, and lightning. The greater the mass of water vapor and air that is transported upward in the atmosphere, the higher the risk of extreme weather. This vertical transport of air and water vapor, known as convective mass flux (CMF), remains one of the great unknowns in weather and climate science. Systematic CMF measurements over the full range of environmental conditions would improve the representation of storm intensity and constrain high cloud feedbacks – which can add uncertainty – in weather and climate models.

Support from many partners
The mission will be supported by several NASA centers, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, with key satellite system components to be provided by Blue Canyon Technologies, and Tendeg LLC, both in Colorado. The mission will cost approximately $177 million, not including launch costs. NASA will select a launch provider in the future.

The team includes several university partners, including City College of New York, Stony Brook University, and Texas A&M University.

“Every one of our Earth science missions is carefully chosen to add to a robust portfolio of research about the planet we live on,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “INCUS fills an important niche to help us understand extreme weather and its impact on climate models – all of which serves to provide crucial information needed to mitigate weather and climate effects on our communities.”

NASA’s Earth Venture Program consists of science-driven, competitively selected, low-cost missions/investigations. This program provides opportunities for investment in innovative science to enhance the capability to better understand the current state of the Earth and further improve predictions of future changes. The current Earth Venture program includes full missions, satellite instruments for flights of opportunity, instruments for Earth science data record continuity, and sustained suborbital investigations.

A visit by Vice President Kamala Harris to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, last week included discussion of the INCUS mission.

For more information about NASA’s Earth science programs, visit nasa.gov/earth


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