Earning a research grant can be difficult for any academic, especially $107.9 million from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Last month, a group consisting of both academics and industry members won such a grant.  

Dr. Joe Salisbury, a research associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of New Hampshire’s College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, is the project leader and principal investigator. Salisbury has had research funded by NASA in the past, namely his work with remote sensing, where a scientific instrument, such as a satellite or even a drone, is used to measure qualities of a faraway object—like using a satellite from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to study sediment eroding from land and traveling down large bodies of water, as Salisbury has done, or to study ocean color.  

The work in getting the grant began six years ago. Salisbury and fellow team members met weekly as part of a NASA preformulation mission, which was “to study the feasibility of placing one of these sensors in space” Salisbury said, where the team examined the scientific and financial feasibility of developing these sensors. That mission was too expensive for NASA, which defunded it, suggesting that a cheaper version would be ideal. 

“A subgroup of us started to find out where we could get a smaller mission funded, and that happened to be called EVI: Earth Venture Instrument,” Salisbury said, which “NASA puts out every couple years, and we replied to that and we won.” He and team members composed a proposal over 200 pages long. The proposal includes working with industry partners like Raytheon Aerospace; NASA laboratories; and other universities. Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers will help with this project, and, although not written into the proposal, undergraduates may have an opportunity to help as well, though any opportunities will be at least a year and a half away. 

The grant is similar to Salisbury’s past work, as it will focus on the Gulf of Mexico, where the Mississippi dumps into the ocean, often carrying runoff from agriculture along the river basin. This runoff can encourage the growth of phytoplankton: small plants that live near the surface of the ocean and photosynthesize.  

Some species of phytoplankton cause serious health issues and detriment to fisheries—i.e., red tide—as Salisbury mentioned, noting that states bordering the Gulf depend heavily on industries like tourism and fishing. These issues occur in the form of algal blooms, which upon the algae’s death, absorb the oxygen in the surrounding water, leading to hypoxic zones—areas of no oxygen, where no oxygen-dependent life, such as the shrimp fisheries off Louisiana, can live.   

Phytoplankton can cause such severe issues and technology to track it is limited— tracking cannot well identify the species of phytoplankton and if it is a harmful species. Additionally, there are biological knowledge challenges regarding phytoplankton, as Salisbury described.  

“The sun going up and down…is one of the most important biological drivers that there is. Life in the ocean responds to that…we can study how [phytoplankton] behave over the course of the day. And that might sound trivial, but we’ve never been able to do that before,” Salisbury said. 

Salisbury and his team will build the Geosynchronous Littoral Imaging and Monitoring Radiometer (GLIMR), which will observe ocean color, biology, chemistry and ecology, including phytoplankton. Different species of phytoplankton are “not all the same color, so these little articulations in the spectra of a water mass will reveal who’s in there; how much sediment, how much colored carbon,” as well as where a mass of phytoplankton is moving, Salisbury said. Predicting the trajectory of a phytoplankton mass, or algal bloom, will be useful in managing algal impacts.  

Algal bloom impact management is another component of the grant—applications to society. The technology for this can even be applied to tracking oil spills, as the Gulf frequently sees oil drilling. The satellite can also be remotely moved to focus on another large body of water, such as the Great Lakes, if needed. 

To focus on only one area, like the Gulf, the team has to build what is called a geostationary sensor. A geostationary sensor will observe the Gulf for the entreaty of the project, whereas most satellites move around the earth, seeing all parts of the earth over time. Being geostationary is key, Salisbury explained, “As the water evolves underneath [the sensor], phytoplankton grow and move and die and materials come off the land and carbon sinks and floats…we can track all of that by looking by staring at the same place over time.” Salisbury said. 

Industry partner Raytheon Aerospace, along with John Macri and David Rau, both of the Space Science Center at UNH, will focus on building the sensor, with Macri managing building the sensor, and Rau commanding the sensor’s orientation from Morse Hall. Once built, the sensor will be mounted on a communications satellite, such as a cell phone satellite. Salisbury noted that sharing space with a communications satellite is ideal, because of the power and data capacity of those satellites. The data from the sensor will be sent to UNH.  

No data will be sent for a few years, however. Salisbury, tasked with coordinating all the entities involved in this project and ensuring that work moves forward, hopes to have the sensors built by 2023 if work moves quickly enough, but NASA aims for launch in 2026 or 2027. 

Once the sensor launches, the mission is set for only two years in space, with one year at the minimum. Yet, “what happens in most missions is if your asset is in space and it’s giving good data, and the scientific community is using it, and we are answering the important scientific questions that we proposed, then NASA tends to keep funding this asset until something breaks or the quality in the data degrades…they tend to support missions that are successful,” Salisbury said.