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NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel Releases 2023 Annual Report


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The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), an advisory committee that reports to NASA and Congress, issued its 2023 annual report Thursday examining the agency’s safety performance, accomplishments, and challenges over the past year. 

The report highlights 2023 activities and observations on NASA’s:

  • Strategic Vision and Guiding Principles
  • Agency Governance
  • Moon to Mars Program Management

In 2023, NASA continued to make meaningful progress toward meeting the intent of the broad-ranging recommendations the panel made in 2022. As a result, the ASAP’s latest report includes information on the advances NASA made in its operations, decision-making, program and personnel management, and the tasks that remain.

“This report reflects the panel’s strong emphasis on strategic-level aspects of NASA leadership, risk management, and safety culture – a primary focus over the past two years – while also giving attention to the tactical level of technical execution. We believe that the principles and processes the agency employs to evaluate and make decisions, manage programs, and communicate to its workforce have a direct and consequential impact on safety and mission assurance,” said Dr. Patricia Sanders, ASAP chair. “We also highlight some steps that the Congress can take to assist NASA in safely accomplishing its challenging mission.”

The report highlights the progress made toward top recommendations offered in 2022, including the establishment of a Moon to Mars Program Office, as well as the NASA 2040 new agencywide initiative to operationalize the agency’s vision and strategic objectives across headquarters and centers.

Furthermore, this report addresses safety assessments for both the Moon to Mars Program and the operations – current and future – in low Earth orbit. It also touches on relevant areas of human health and medicine in space, regulatory requirements for commercial space operations as they affect NASA, and the impact of budget constraints and uncertainty on safety.

The 2023 report provides details on the concrete actions the agency should take to fulfill the 2022 recommendations. It spotlights recommendations for the agency moving ahead, including the establishment of a comprehensive International Space Station to Commercial low Earth Orbit destination transition plan.

The report is based on the panel’s 2023 fact-finding and quarterly public meetings; direct observations of NASA operations and decision-making; discussions with NASA management, employees, and contractors; and the panel members’ past experiences.

Congress established the panel in 1968 to provide advice and make recommendations to the NASA administrator on safety matters after the 1967 Apollo 1 fire claimed the lives of three American astronauts.

For more information about the ASAP, view the 2023 report or reports from previous years, visit:

https://oiir.hq.nasa.gov/asap

-end-

Roxana Bardan
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1600
roxana.bardan@nasa.gov

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Jan 25, 2024

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      Chris Hakkenberg [Northern Arizona University (NAU)] led a breakout session on structural diversity, including the horizontal and vertical components. Different structural attributes, (e.g., stand structure, height, cover, and vegetation density) have different – but related – metrics and measurement approaches. Participants discussed biodiversity-structure relationships (BSRs), how to better characterize horizontal structural diversity, and how to define which metrics (i.e., scale, sampling unit, and spatial resolution) are most meaningful in different situations.
      Jim Kellner led a session that focused on biomass calibration and validation and how to create the best data products given global environmental variation. Special cases – e.g., mangroves – pose challenges for calibration and validation because they don’t always have as much plot-level data as other environments. Participants discussed how to determine strata while considering climactic and environmental covariates as well as constraints of data availability and consistency.
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      GEDI data is also being used to study tropical forests. Chris Doughty [NAU] described how he and his team analyzed GEDI L2A data across all tropical forests and found that tropical forest structure was less stratified and more exposed to sunlight than previously thought. Most tropical forests (80% of the Amazon and 70% of southeast Asia and the Congo Basin) have a peak in the number of leaves at 15 m (49 ft) instead of at the canopy top. Doughty and his team have found that deviation from more ideal conditions (i.e., lower fertility or higher temperatures) lead to shorter, less-stratified tropical forests with lower biomass.
      Paul Moorcroft [Harvard University] reported on studies of current and future carbon dynamics across the Pacific Coast region based on forest structure and rates of carbon uptake. Moorcroft’s group examined how these ecosystems will behave in the future under different climate scenarios and have plans to conduct similar studies in other regions.
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      Demonstrative products show how GEDI data can be used in practice and in combination with other resources. Ecosystem modeling is one way that GEDI data are being used to address questions about aboveground carbon balance, future atmospheric CO2 concentrations, and habitat quality and biodiversity. George Hurtt [UMD—GEDI Co-I] shared his progress on integrating GEDI canopy height measurements with the Ecosystem Demography model to estimate current global forest carbon stocks and project future sequestration gaps under climate change – see Figure 6. Hurtt emphasized that this unprecedented volume of lidar data significantly enhances the ability of carbon models to capture spatial heterogeneity of forest carbon dynamics at 1 km (0.6 mi) scale, which is crucial for local policymaking regarding climate mitigation.
      Figure 6. [Top] Average lidar canopy height at 0.01° resolution, computed by gridding both GEDI and ICESat-2 together, and carbon stocks [middle] and fluxes [bottom] from ED-Lidar (GEDI and ICESat-2 combined). The insets highlight fine-scale spatial distribution and coverage gaps at selected regions (1.5° × 1.5°). Note that the three maps show grid-cell averages aggregated from sub-grid scale heterogeneity for each variable. Figure credit: From a 2023 article in Global Change Biology. There is also great potential for the development and application of methods for mapping forest structure, carbon stocks, and their changes by fusing data from GEDI and the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt’s (DLR) [German Space Operations Center] TerraSAR-X Add-oN for Digital Elevation Measurement (TanDEM-X) satellite mission, which uses synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to gather three-dimensional (3D) images of Earth’s surface. This fusion product is being spearheaded by Wenlu Qi [UMD], who presented on efforts to create maps of pantropical canopy height, biomass, forest structure, and biomass change using the fusion product as well as maps of forests in temperate U.S. and Hawaii.
      Data from the GEDI mission are also being used to quantify the spatial and temporal distribution of habitat structure, which influences habitat quality and biodiversity. Scott Goetz [NAU—GEDI Deputy PI] presented on biodiversity-related activities, citing a 2023 paper in Nature that examined the effectiveness of protected areas (PAs) across southeast Asia using GEDI data to compare canopy structure within and outside of PAs – see Figure 7. He also presented an analysis of tree and plant diversity across U.S. National Ecological Observation Network (NEON) sites that showed similar capabilities of GEDI with airborne laser scanning (ALS) for tree diversity.
      Figure 7. [Top] Protected Areas (PAs) such as national parks can reduce habitat loss and degradation (from logging) and extractive behaviors such as hunting (shown in red circle), but this figure shows there are a wide range of real-world outcomes based on management effectiveness. [Middle] PAs are aimed at safeguarding multiple facets of biodiversity, including species richness (SR), functional richness (FR) and phylogenetic diversity (PD). PAs often focus on vertebrate conservation, owing to their threat levels and value to humans – including for tourism. This study focused on wildlife in southeast Asia, with mammals shown here representing a variation of feeding guilds and sizes. The same approach is repeated for birds. [Bottom] Wildlife communities inside PAs and in the surrounding landscape may exhibit distinct levels and types of diversity. Figure credit: From a 2023 article in Nature. Competed Science Team Presentations—Session 3
      One unique application of GEDI data is using lidar height to improve radiative transfer models for snow processes. Steven Hancock [University of Edinburgh, Scotland] reported on his group’s work studying snow, forest structure, and heterogeneity in forests, explaining that the majority of land surface models used for climate and weather forecasting use one-dimensional (1D) radiative transfer (RT) models driven by leaf area alone. Heterogeneous forests cast shadows and cause the surface albedo to depend upon sun angle and tree height for moderate leaf area indices (LAI), i.e., LAI values from  1-3 – which are common in snow-affected areas. This complexity cannot be represented in 1D models. An RT model can represent the effect of tree height and horizontal heterogeneity to simulate the observed change in albedo with height, which itself spatially varies.
      In contrast to a snowy study area, Ovidiu Csillik [NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory] and his team are developing statistical models to link GEDI relative height metrics to tropical forest characteristics traceable to inventory measurements. This dataset of forest structure variables over the Amazon will be used to initialize a demographic ecosystem model to produce projections of future potential tropical forest carbon, as demonstrated by Amazon-wide simulations using initializations from airborne lidar sampling.
      Wenge Ni-Meister [Hunter College of the City University of New York] is working on improving aboveground biomass estimates using GEDI waveform measurements. Ni-Meister and her team are testing models in both domestic and international tropical and temperate forests.
      Breakout Sessions—Session 2
      Two more breakout sessions occurred on day two:  
      Sean Healey led a discussion on modes of inference for GEDI data. Inference – formally derived uncertainty for area estimates of biomass, height, or other metrics – can take different forms, each of which includes specific assumptions. In this breakout session, participants considered the strengths and limitations of different inference types (e.g., intensity of computation or the ability to use different models).
      Laura Duncanson [UMD—GEDI Co-I] led a discussion about facilitation of open science, in other words, how to make GEDI data more accessible and digestible for data users. While GEDI data area free and publicly available via the LP DAAC and ORNL DAAC, gaining access to said data can be intimidating. Sharing more about existing resources and creating new ones can help remove barriers. The LP DAAC and ORNL DAAC have excellent tutorials on GitHub (a cloud-based software development platform that is primarily Python-based), and Google Earth Engine applications are available for accessing and visualizing GEDI data. Future endeavors may include more webinars, R-based tutorials, workshops, and trainings on specific topics and ways to use GEDI data. More information is available via an online compilation of GEDI-related tutorials.
      Perspective: A NUVIEW of Earth’s Land Surface
      For the second perspective presentation of day two, meeting attendees heard from Clint Graumann, CEO and co-founder of NUVIEW, a company whose mission is to build a commercial satellite constellation of lidar-imaging satellites that will produce 3D maps of the Earth’s entire land surface. Graumann shared NUVIEW’s intent to produce land surface maps on an annual basis and provide a variety of products and services, including digital surface models (DSMs), digital terrain models (DTMs), and a point cloud generated by laser pulses.
      Competed Science Team Presentations—Session 4
      Laura Duncanson began the second round of science presentations with her group’s research on global forest carbon hotspots. She discussed her 2023 paper in Nature Communications on the effectiveness of global PAs for climate change mitigation – see Figure 8, which found that the creation of PAs led to more biomass – especially in the Amazon. Within GEDI-domain terrestrial PAs, total aboveground biomass (AGB) storage was found to be 125 Pg, which is around 26% of global estimated AGB. Without the existence of PAs, 19.7 Gt of the 125 Pg would have likely been lost.
      Figure 8. PAs effectively preserve additional aboveground carbon (AGC) across continents and biomes, with forest biomes dominating the global signal, particularly in South America. The additional preserved AGC (Gt) in WWF biome classes (total Gt + /− SEM*area). World base map made with Natural Earth. The full set of analyzed GEDI data are represented in this figure (n = 412,100,767). Figure credit: From a 2023 article in Nature Communications. Another unique application of GEDI data has to do with water on the Earth’s surface. Kyungtae Lee [UMD], who works with Michelle Hofton [UMD—GEDI Co-I], reported that GEDI appears to capture the monthly annual cycle of lake elevation, showing good correlation with the ground-based observations. Lee explained that even though the GEDI lake elevation estimates show systematic biases relative to the local gauges, GEDI captures lake elevation dynamics well – especially the annual cycle variations. This work has the potential to expand knowledge of hydrological significance of lakes, particularly in data-limited areas of the world. Stephen Good [Oregon State University] presented a survey of his team’s recent work integrating observations from GEDI into hydrology and hydraulics studies of how vegetation can block and intercept moving water. The team found important nonlinear relationships between inferred canopy storage and canopy biomass and were able to estimate canopy water storage capacities and map these globally.
      Finally, Patrick Burns [NAU], who works with Scott Goetz, presented results using GEDI canopy structure metrics in mammal species distribution models across southeast Asia (specifically focusing on Borneo and Sumatra). The team’s early results indicate that GEDI canopy structure metrics are important in many mammal distribution models and improve model performance for another smaller subset of species. In other words, when looking at predictors like mean annual precipitation or forest structure (forest structure being a metric that GEDI data provide), the GEDI-derived structure metrics are more intuitive and help us understand distributional changes and fine-scale habitat suitability. In a region like southeast Asia, for example, which has undergone high rates of deforestation in the recent decades, forest structure may be a more relevant predictor in a species distribution model (SDM) than other metrics like climate or vegetation composition. The team will continue to produce models for additional species and expand the extent of the analysis to include mainland Asia.
      DAY THREE
      Competed Science Team Presentations—Session 5
      Day three began with the meeting’s last round of competed ST presentations. John Armston presented the progress of GEDI L2B Plant Area Volume Density (PAVD) product validation using a global Terrestrial Laser Scanning (TLS) database and fusion of the L2B product with Landsat time-series for quantifying change in canopy structure from the Australian wildfires of 2019–2020. Participants then heard from Jim Kellner on using machine-learning algorithms for L4A aboveground biomass density (AGBD). The performance of machine-learning algorithms on a testing data set was comparable to linear regressions used for the first releases of GEDI AGBD data products on average – although there were important geographical differences associated with machine learning. One application under investigation is using machine learning to identify new potential stratifications for GEDI footprint aboveground biomass density.
      Lastly, Jingyu Dai [New Mexico State University (NMSU)], who works with Niall Hanan [NMSU], presented on her analysis of the global limits to tree height. Her study shows that hydraulic limitation is the most important constraint on maximum canopy height globally. This result is mediated by plant functional type. In addition, rougher terrain promotes forest height at sub-landscape scales by enriching local niche diversity and probability of larger trees.
      Perspective from the Data Side
      As described in the summary of Ralph Dubayah’s introductory remarks, the LP DAAC and ORNL DAAC play essential roles in the dissemination of GEDI data and the success of the GEDI program. Representatives from each of these DAACs addressed the ST to summarize recent GEDI-related activities.
      Aaron Friesz [United States Geological Survey (USGS)] represented the LP DAAC and gave an update on the current archive size, distribution metrics, and outreach activities. He also discussed plans to support the growth and sustainability of the community through collaboration activities that will leverage the GitHub application; he described some of the resources that are available. Friesz then highlighted the USGS Eyes on Earth podcast and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society (GRSS)’s Down to Earth podcast, which have featured Ralph Dubayah and Laura Duncanson, and shared plans to update the current GitHub tutorials and how-to guides in the Earthdata Cloud of GEDI V2 and V3.
      Rupesh Shrestha [ORNL] represented the ORNL DAAC and shared the status of GEDI L3, L4A, and L4B datasets archived there. He gave an overview of data tools and services for the GEDI datasets, which can be found on the GEDI website and GitHub tutorials website. GEDI L3, L4A, and L4B are available on NASA’s Earthdata Cloud and various enterprise-level services, such as NASA’s WorldView, Harmony, and OpenDAP. GEDI data usage metrics, data tutorials and workshops, and outreach activities, as well as other published community and related datasets were also highlighted. GEDI L3, L4A, and L4B have been downloaded over four million times collectively.
      Neha Hunka [UMD] gave the final presentation of the meeting on biomass harmonization activities. She reported that the GEDI estimates of aboveground biomass are capable of directly contributing to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Global Stocktake. Hunka and her colleagues’ research is aimed at bridging the science–policy gap to enable the use of space-based aboveground biomass estimates for policy reporting and impact – see Figure 9.
      Figure 9. Forest biomass estimates in the format of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Tier 1 values from NASA GEDI and ESA Climate Change Initiative (CCI) maps. Figure credit: Neha Hunka Conclusion
      Overall, the 2023 GEDI STM showcased an exceptional array of scientific research that is highly relevant to addressing pressing global challenges and answering key questions about global forest structure, carbon balance, habitat quality, and biodiversity among other topics. As the GEDI instrument enters its second epoch, we are excited to welcome a new competed GEDI science team cohort and look forward to the release of V3 data products later this year.
      Ralph Dubayah concluded the STM with a summary of hibernation period goals and a farewell to this iteration of the competed ST. He extended a heartfelt thank you and farewell to Hank Margolis [NASA Headquarters, emeritus] who has been the NASA Program Scientist for the GEDI mission since 2015. Thank you, Hank. We will miss you.
      Talia Schwelling
      University of Maryland, College Park
      tschwell@umd.edu
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