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"LEO will become a commercial domain," Bigelow's Mike Gold told Space.com, adding that it wasn't long ago that all communications satellites were owned by governments -- compared to now, when the majority are privately owned.
Bigelow currently has two stand-alone autonomous spacecraft in orbit, the Genesis I and the Genesis II, both collecting data about LEO conditions and about how well the technology performs in practise. The BEAM module will allow further data collation for the company, which is planning to launch its own space station, named Bigelow Aerospace Alpha Station, to be at least partially operational as early as next year.
Now, however, NASA is taking the space station's Earth-observing capabilities to a whole new level. Before the end of the decade, six NASA Earth science instruments will be mounted to the station to help scientists study our changing planet. The upgrades began this month: On Sept. 20th, a SpaceX resupply rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral carrying the first NASA Earth-observing instrument to be mounted on the exterior of the space station: ISS-RapidScat will monitor ocean winds for climate research, weather predictions and hurricane science.
Two more Earth science instruments are slated to launch in 2016. First, SAGE III will measure ozone and other gases in the upper atmosphere to help scientists assess how the ozone layer is recovering. Second, the Lightning Imaging Sensor will monitor thunderstorm activity around the globe.
To keep track of our planet's ozone layer, NASA is about to launch the most sophisticated space-based ozone sensor ever: SAGE III, slated for installation on the International Space Station in 2014.
"The ISS is in the perfect orbit for SAGE III," says Joe Zawodny, Project Scientist for the instrument at the Langley Research Center. "It will be able to monitor ozone all around the Earth during all seasons of the year."
SAGE III works by using the Sun and Moon as light sources. When either one rises or sets behind the edge of the Earth, SAGE III analyzes the light that passes through Earth's atmosphere. Ozone and other molecules absorb specific wavelengths that reveal their density, temperature and location.
"SAGE III is, essentially, analyzing the colors of the sunset to track ozone," says Zawodny. "It sounds romantic, but this is hard science."
A laser-based instrument being developed for the International Space Station will provide a unique 3-D view of Earth’s forests, helping to fill in missing information about their role in the carbon cycle. Called the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) lidar, the instrument will be the first to systematically probe the depths of the forests from space. The system is one of two instrument proposals recently selected for NASA’s Earth Venture Instrument program and is being led by the University of Maryland, College Park. The instrument will be built at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
GEDI will carry a trio of specialized lasers, developed in-house at Goddard, and will use sophisticated optics to divide the three beams out into 14 tracks on the ground. Together, these tracks will be spaced 1,640 feet (500 meters) apart on the surface creating a total swath width of about 4 miles (6.5 kilometers). GEDI will sample all of the land between 50 degrees north latitude and 50 degrees south latitude this way, covering nearly all tropical and temperate forests.
GEDI is scheduled to be completed in 2018. NASA’s Earth Venture Instrument program is part of the Earth System Science Pathfinder program, managed by NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The GEDI team includes co-investigators from Goddard; Woods Hole Research Center, Woods Hole, Massachusetts; the U.S. Forest Service, Ogden, Utah; and Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.