NASA Wants to Identify Phytoplankton Species from Space. Here’s Why.

Posted by Nutramar Staff on December 12, 2023

NASA Wants to Identify Phytoplankton Species from Space. Here’s Why. thumbnail image

NASA is launching the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, and Ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite in early 2024 to study phytoplankton, essential organisms in ocean ecosystems. PACE's Ocean Color Instrument will collect data on light reflecting off the ocean, observing more than 100 wavelengths, making it the first satellite to hyperspectrally identify phytoplankton species globally. Phytoplankton, through photosynthesis, absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide, producing oxygen and carbohydrates, forming the basis of the ocean food web. PACE aims to provide valuable insights into these crucial organisms, contributing to our understanding of Earth's ecosystems.

Phytoplankton, though constituting less than 1% of Earth's photosynthesizing biomass, contribute around 45% of global primary production. These organisms, present in ocean ecosystems, play a vital role in nutrient provision, oxygen production, and carbon cycling. Phytoplankton diversity, comparable to that of land plants, enables them to perform various roles in Earth's carbon systems. Certain species, like Emiliana huxleyi, incorporate carbon into their shells, sequestering it in the ocean depths upon death. Others contribute to the diets of specific marine organisms, and some capture carbon through photosynthesis, impacting carbon cycling in the atmosphere and oceans. The PACE satellite aims to enhance our understanding of these crucial processes.

The Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, and ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite, set to launch in 2024, aims to provide a comprehensive view of ocean phytoplankton diversity. Understanding these microscopic organisms' diversity will contribute valuable insights into global carbon flow in oceans, aiding our comprehension of present and future marine ecosystems. Phytoplankton's significance extends to polar regions, where their blooms, triggered by sea ice melt cycles, play a critical role in supporting various species, from clams and krill to larger marine mammals like walruses and whales. PACE's ability to monitor changes in the timing and extent of these blooms will contribute to our understanding of climate-related impacts on marine ecosystems.

The Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, and ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite, slated for launch in 2024, will play a crucial role in monitoring and distinguishing between harmful and non-harmful phytoplankton blooms. Harmful algal blooms can pose risks to both ecosystems and human activities, such as drinking water contamination. PACE, with its advanced hyperspectral Ocean Color Instrument, builds on the legacy of previous satellites like Terra, Aqua, Landsat, and SeaWiFS. The mission's ability to provide daily, global-scale observations of phytoplankton types is anticipated to significantly enhance our understanding of these microscopic organisms and their ecological implications. To learn more about this, go to Erica McNamee’s NASA article