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Galileo satellites arrive at Europe’s Spaceport


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      Preparations for Next Moonwalk Simulations Underway (and Underwater)
      An aerial view of Palmyra Atoll, where animal tracking data now being studied by NASA’s Internet of Animals project was collected using wildlife tags by partners at The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and several universities.The Nature Conservancy/Kydd Pollock Anchoring the boat in a sandbar, research scientist Morgan Gilmour steps into the shallows and is immediately surrounded by sharks. The warm waters around the tropical island act as a reef shark nursery, and these baby biters are curious about the newcomer. They zoom close and veer away at the last minute, as Gilmour slowly makes her way toward the kaleidoscope of green sprouting from the island ahead.
      Gilmour, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, conducts marine ecology and conservation studies using data collected by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) from animals equipped with wildlife tags. Palmyra Atoll, a United States marine protected area, provides the perfect venue for this work.
      A juvenile blacktip reef shark swims toward researchers in the shallow waters around Palmyra Atoll.The Nature Conservancy/Kydd Pollock A collection of roughly 50 small islands in the tropical heart of the Pacific Ocean, the atoll is bursting with life of all kinds, from the reef sharks and manta rays circling the shoreline to the coconut crabs climbing palm branches and the thousands of seabirds swooping overhead. By analyzing the movements of dolphins, tuna, and other creatures, Gilmour and her collaborators can help assess whether the boundaries of the marine protected area surrounding the atoll actually protect the species they intend to, or if its limits need to shift.
      Launched in 2020 by The Nature Conservancy and its partners – USGS, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and several universities – the project team deployed wildlife tags at Palmyra in 2022, when Gilmour was a scientist with USGS.
      Now with NASA, she is leveraging the data for a study under the agency’s Internet of Animals project. By combining information transmitted from wildlife tags with information about the planet collected by satellites – such as NASA’s Aqua, NOAA’s GOES (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) satellites, and the U.S.-European Jason-3 – scientists can work with partners to draw conclusions that inform ecological management.
      The Palmyra Atoll is a haven for biodiversity, boasting thriving coral reef systems, shallow waters that act as a shark nursery, and rich vegetation for various land animals and seabirds. In the Landsat image above, a small white square marks the research station, where scientists from all over the world come to study the many species that call the atoll home.NASA/Earth Observatory Team “Internet of Animals is more than just an individual collection of movements or individual studies; it’s a way to understand the Earth at large,” said Ryan Pavlick, then Internet of Animals project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, during the project’s kickoff event.

      The Internet of Animals at Palmyra

      “Our work at Palmyra was remarkably comprehensive,” said Gilmour. “We tracked the movements of eight species at once, plus their environmental conditions, and we integrated climate projections to understand how their habitat may change. Where studies may typically track two or three types of birds, we added fish and marine mammals, plus air and water column data, for a 3D picture of the marine protected area.”
      Tagged Yellowfin Tuna, Grey Reef Sharks, and Great Frigatebirds move in and out of a marine protected area (blue square), which surrounds the Palmyra Atoll (blue circle) in the tropical heart of the Pacific. These species are three of many that rely on the atoll and its surrounding reefs for food and for nesting.NASA/Lauren Dauphin Now, the NASA team has put that data into a species distribution model, which combines the wildlife tracking information with environmental data from satellites, including sea surface temperature, chlorophyll concentration, and ocean current speed. The model can help researchers understand how animal populations use their habitats and how that might shift as the climate changes.
      Preliminary results from Internet of Animals team show that the animals tracked are moving beyond the confines of the Palmyra marine protected area. The model identified suitable habitats both in and around the protected zone – now and under predicted climate change scenarios – other researchers and decisionmakers can utilize that knowledge to inform marine policy and conservation.
      Research scientist Morgan Gilmour checks on a young great frigatebird in its nest. The marine protected area around Palmyra Atoll protects these birds’ breeding grounds.UC Santa Barbara/Devyn Orr Following a 2023 presidential memorandum, NOAA began studying and gathering input on whether to expand the protected areas around Palmyra and other parts of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Analysis from NASA’s Internet of Animals could inform that and similar decisions, such as whether to create protected “corridors” in the ocean to allow for seasonal migrations of wildlife. The findings and models from the team’s habitat analysis at Palmyra also could help inform conservation at similar latitudes across the planet.
      Beyond the Sea: Other Internet of Animals Studies
      Research at Palmyra Atoll is just one example of work by Internet of Animals scientists.
      Claire Teitelbaum, a researcher with the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute based at NASA Ames, studies avian flu in wild waterfowl, investigating how their movement may contribute to transmission of the virus to poultry and other domestic livestock.
      Teams at Ames and JPL are also working with USGS to create next-generation wildlife tags and sensors. Low-power radar tags in development at JPL would be lightweight enough to track small birds. Ames researchers plan to develop long-range radio tags capable of maximizing coverage and transmission of data from high-flying birds. This could help researchers take measurements in hard-to-reach layers of the atmosphere.
      With the technology brought together by the Internet of Animals, even wildlife can take an active role in the study of Earth’s interacting systems, helping human experts learn more about our planet and how best to confront the challenges facing the natural world.
      To learn more about the Internet of Animals visit: https://www.nasa.gov/nasa-earth-exchange-nex/new-missions-support/internet-of-animals/
      The Internet of Animals project is funded by NASA and managed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. The team at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley is part of the NASA Earth Exchange, a Big Data initiative providing unique insights into Earth’s systems using the agency’s supercomputers at the center. Partners on the project include the U.S. Geological Survey, The Nature Conservancy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Yale Center for Biodiversity and Global Change, Stanford University, University of Hawaii, University of California Santa Barbara, San Jose State University, University of Washington, and the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior.


      For Researchers
      The research collaboration’s dataset from Palmyra is available in open access: Palmyra Bluewater Research Marine Animal Telemetry Dataset, 2022-2023 Related research from Morgan Gilmour’s team was published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation in June 2022: “Evaluation of MPA designs that protect highly mobile megafauna now and under climate change scenarios.”
      Media Contacts
      Members of the news media interested in covering this topic should reach out to the NASA Ames newsroom.
      About the Author
      Milan Loiacono
      Science Communication SpecialistMilan Loiacono is a science communication specialist for the Earth Science Division at NASA Ames Research Center.
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      On 25 June 2024, three major European space industry players each signed a contract with ESA to develop large low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite platforms that conform to Zero Debris standards.
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      Despite some years with significant snowfalls, long-term drought conditions in the Great Basin region of Nevada, California, Arizona, and Utah, along with increasing water demands, have strained water reserves in the western U.S. As a result, inland bodies of water, including the Great Salt Lake pictured here, have shrunk dramatically, exposing lakebeds that may release toxic dust when dried.Dorothy Hall/University of Maryland Record snowfall in recent years has not been enough to offset long-term drying conditions and increasing groundwater demands in the U.S. Southwest, according to a new analysis of NASA satellite data.
      Declining water levels in the Great Salt Lake and Lake Mead have been testaments to a megadrought afflicting western North America since 2000. But surface water only accounts for a fraction of the Great Basin watershed that covers most of Nevada and large portions of California, Utah, and Oregon. Far more of the region’s water is underground. That has historically made it difficult to track the impact of droughts on the overall water content of the Great Basin.
      A new look at 20 years of data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) series of satellites shows that the decline in groundwater in the Great Basin far exceeds stark surface water losses. Over about the past two decades, the underground water supply in the basin has fallen by 16.5 cubic miles (68.7 cubic kilometers). That’s roughly two-thirds as much water as the entire state of California uses in a year and about six times the total volume of water that was left in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, at the end of 2023.
      While new maps show a seasonal rise in water each spring due to melting snow from higher elevations, University of Maryland earth scientist Dorothy Hall said occasional snowy winters are unlikely to stop the dramatic water level decline that’s been underway in the U.S. Southwest.
      The finding came about as Hall and colleagues studied the contribution of annual snowmelt to Great Basin water levels. “In years like the 2022-23 winter, I expected that the record amount of snowfall would really help to replenish the groundwater supply,” Hall said. “But overall, the decline continued.” The research was published in March 2024 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
      “A major reason for the decline is the upstream water diversion for agriculture and households,” Hall said. Populations in the states that rely on Great Basin water supplies have grown by 6% to 18% since 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. “As the population increases, so does water use.”
      Runoff, increased evaporation, and water needs of plants suffering hot, dry conditions in the region are amplifying the problem. “With the ongoing threat of drought,” Hall said, “farmers downstream often can’t get enough water.”
      Gravity measurements from the GRACE series of satellites show that the decline in water levels in the Great Basin region from April 2002 to September 2023 has most severely affected portions of southern California (indicated in red).D.K. Hall et al./Geophysical Research Letters 2024 While measurements of the water table in the Great Basin — including the depths required to connect wells to depleted aquifers — have hinted at declining groundwater, data from the joint German DLR-NASA GRACE missions provide a clearer picture of the total loss of water supply in the region. The original GRACE satellites, which flew from March 2002 to October 2017, and the successor GRACE–Follow On (GRACE–FO) satellites, which launched in May 2018 and are still active, track changes in Earth’s gravity due primarily to shifting water mass.
      GRACE-based maps of fluctuating water levels have improved recently as the team has learned to parse more and finer details from the dataset. “Improved spatial resolution helped in this study to distinguish the location of the mass trends in the Western U.S. roughly ten times better than prior analyses,” said Bryant Loomis, who leads GRACE data analysis at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
      The diminishing water supplies of the U.S. Southwest could have consequences for both humans and wildlife, Hall said. In addition to affecting municipal water supplies and limiting agricultural irrigation, “It exposes the lake beds, which often harbor toxic minerals from agricultural runoff, waste, and anything else that ends up in the lakes.”
      In Utah, a century of industrial chemicals accumulated in the Great Salt Lake, along with airborne pollutants from present-day mining and oil refinement, have settled in the water. The result is a hazardous muck that is uncovered and dried as the lake shrinks. Dust blown from dry lake beds, in turn, exacerbates air pollution in the region. Meanwhile, shrinking lakes are putting a strain on bird populations that rely on the lakes as stopovers during migration.
      According to the new findings, Hall said, “The ultimate solution will have to include wiser water management.”
      By James R. Riordon
      NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
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