Ralph Basilio discusses environmental uses of remote sensing by NASA

Photo of NASA Jet Propulsion Lab event
Catherine Hsu/Staff
Remote sensing is a term used to describe the science of measuring an object without coming into direct contact with it, according to NASA Earth Observatory.

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Ralph Basilio, the program and project manager at the California Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Laboratory, discussed NASA’s use of remote sensing and its connection to environmental policy decision-making at an event hosted by the Berkeley Forum on Tuesday night.

Remote sensing is a term used to describe the science of measuring an object without coming into direct contact with it, according to NASA Earth Observatory. Basilio said during the event that NASA spaceflight missions had previously focused solely on science and research, but with a recent “paradigm shift,” they are now using the same data to benefit the community.

For example, Basilio said NASA has been operating satellites in space since the early 1990s to track rising sea levels.

“We’re going to continue to provide a longer data record so that we can better understand the trends as we’re dealing with climate change over the next several decades,” Basilio said during the event.

Remote sensing can also be used to measure water availability, which is extremely important given the California wildfires, Basilio said. By using gravity, instruments can map how much water is in lakes, rivers and mountaintops, as well as available groundwater.

“We’re hoping that the data being produced by these satellites and made available through certain venues will allow water conservation measures to be defined for certain municipalities,” Basilio said during the event. “This is where the value of NASA remote sensing data not just provides value to science and research, but also data applications and informed decision-making.”

Determining carbon dioxide concentrations is another function of remote sensing, Basilio added. Six years ago, to better understand sources and sinks of carbon dioxide, NASA launched the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, or OCO-2, a satellite that indirectly measures carbon dioxide by looking at spectra of reflected sunlight.

Although carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere has fluctuated, it has remained below 320 parts per million, or ppm. NASA is now seeing carbon dioxide levels above 400 ppm through these instruments, Basilio said.

Basilio also worked with representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the OCO-2 project. A “bonus product” of the project was a measurement of solar-induced chlorophyll fluorescence, or the glowing of plants at certain wavelengths to indicate plant health.

One of the grassroots benefits he realized in this experience was that this data could allow farmers and producers to make better-informed decisions, Basilio said.

“Even though the data originates from a NASA satellite, it moves to a different agency and doesn’t stop there,” Basilio said during the event. “That information is now being carried to the constituency, the taxpayer. What we want is to be able to close the loop so that people feel that their investment dollars are being used wisely.”

Basilio added that NASA is currently proposing the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Mission, in which an infrared telescope in deep space would be used to look at potentially hazardous asteroids.

Contact Catherine Hsu at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @catherinehsuDC.