NASA first launched its Aqua satellite on May 4, 2002. With six different observation instruments on board, the satellite is capable of collecting a wide variety of global data, including an array of truly amazing images of our planet Earth.
The latest image to make headlines was captured on Dec. 30, 2013 and shows a beautiful blue phytoplankton bloom stretching out over approximately 250 miles of the Indian Ocean. Phytoplankton are tiny organisms unable to be seen individually by the naked eye. They are normally invisibly present in both fresh and salt water. However, when conditions of extreme warmth, sunshine and the proper nutrients are just right, as is the case during the current summer season in the southern hemisphere, they can multiply rapidly and create the phenomenon captured by the NASA Aqua satellite known as a bloom.
The natural blue color of the bloom as seen in the NASA image is the result of the calcium carbonate present in phytoplankton shells. Individual phytoplankton are known to live for only a few days at most, but a phytoplankton bloom can last up to a period of weeks. Unfortunately, long-lasting blooms can be toxic for other marine life below surface, as their presence on the surface can block much-needed sunlight from reaching plants living below. Though they are but small, phytoplankton are a key link at the bottom of the marine food web and their distribution can have a huge impact on the entirety of Earth’s marine ecosystem.
The recently captured phytoplankton bloom isn’t the first stunning image to emerge from the NASA Aqua satellite and its army of other Earth-observing satellites. Notably, Aqua has caught images of the eruptions of Mt. Etna in 2002 and Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010, that caused massive clouds of ash and resulted in a massive impact on international air traffic. Aqua also assisted in tracking the path of the 2011 Gulf oil spill and has captured the massive haze of pollution surrounding Beijing in China.
Aside from simply being awe-inspiring, images from Aqua and other NASA satellites have helped scientists to better understand a world in which humans play only a small part. Improvements in meteorological science, natural disaster preparedness and the understanding of the impact of humans on the Earth and its climate can all be traced back to the data gathered from these satellites at some level.
Satellite Aqua was named for its unique “ability to measure water vapor in the atmosphere, water in the oceans, as well as ice and snow.” Aqua is also capable of measuring “radiative energy fluxes, aerosols, vegetation cover on the land… and water temperatures” over the surface of the Earth.
Despite an expected life of only three to five years, NASA reports that each of Aqua’s six on board instruments have continued to function perfectly for well over 10 years and the satellite has gathered more than 29 million gigabytes of data over the course of its existence.
Unfortunately, a decline in overall funding for the NASA fleet of Earth-observing satellites may put a portion of their important work and their ability to continue to provide citizens of the world with amazing earthly images at risk.
By Michele Wessel