It’s nearly time for the scientific heart of NISAR – short for NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar – an Earth science satellite being jointly built by NASA and the Indian Space Research Organisation, to ship out to its last stop before launching into orbit: southern India. Before its departure, members of the media got a chance to see NISAR’s advanced radar instruments up close on Feb. 3 in a clean room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. Journalists spoke with ISRO Chairman S. Somanath, JPL Director Laurie Leshin, dignitaries from NASA headquarters and India, and members of the mission team.
“This marks an important milestone in our shared journey to better understand planet Earth and our changing climate,” Leshin said. “NISAR will provide critical information on Earth’s crust, ice sheets, and ecosystems. By delivering measurements at unprecedented precision, NISAR’s promise is new understanding and positive impact in communities. Our collaboration with ISRO exemplifies what’s possible when we tackle complex challenges together.”
Somanath, Indian Ambassador and Deputy Chief of Mission Sripriya Ranganathan, and NASA officials toured the High Bay 2 clean room, where they saw engineers and technicians putting the science instrument payload through final electrical testing.
Outside the facility, in front of a scale model of the NISAR satellite, NASA’s NISAR Project Manager Phil Barela and ISRO’s NISAR Project Director CV Shrikant ceremonially broke fresh coconuts. The tradition, common in India, often marks auspicious occasions and signifies hope for a smooth road ahead. Leshin also presented the ISRO delegation with a jar of JPL lucky peanuts.
Also present were Bhavya Lal, NASA’s associate administrator for technology, policy, and strategy; Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division; and Gerald Bawden, NISAR program scientist, among others.
“Today we come one step closer to fulfilling the immense scientific potential NASA and ISRO envisioned for NISAR when we joined forces more than eight years ago,” Somanath said. “This mission will be a powerful demonstration of the capability of radar as a science tool and help us study Earth’s dynamic land and ice surfaces in greater detail than ever before.”
Members of the media also visited the clean room, speaking with key figures on the NASA mission team, including Deputy Project Manager Wendy Edelstein and Deputy Project Scientist Susan Owen.
NISAR will gather radar data with a drum-shaped reflector antenna almost 40 feet (12 meters) in diameter. It will use a signal-processing technique called interferometric synthetic aperture radar, or InSAR, to observe changes in Earth’s land and ice surfaces down to fractions of an inch.
Since early 2021, engineers and technicians at JPL have been integrating and testing NISAR’s two radar systems – the L-band SAR provided by JPL and the S-band SAR built by ISRO. Later this month, they will move the SUV-size payload into a special cargo container for a 9,000-mile (14,000-kilometer) flight to India’s U R Rao Satellite Centre in the city of Bengaluru. There it will be merged with the spacecraft bus in preparation for a 2024 launch from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Andhra Pradesh state.
The observations NISAR makes will help researchers measure the ways in which Earth is constantly changing by detecting both subtle and dramatic movements. Slow-moving variations of a land surface can precede earthquakes, landslides, and volcanic eruptions, and data about such movement could help communities prepare for natural hazards. Measurements of melting sea ice and ice sheets will improve understanding of the pace and impacts of climate change, including sea level rise. And observations of the planet’s forest and agricultural regions will improve our knowledge of carbon exchange between the atmosphere and plant communities, reducing uncertainties in models used to project future climate.
Over the course of its three-year prime mission, the satellite will observe nearly the entire planet every 12 days, making observations day and night, in all weather conditions.
“We have only just begun to envision the new knowledge and tangible benefits NISAR observations will have for communities around the world,” St. Germain said. “This moment is the culmination of years of cooperation between NASA and ISRO and shows our shared commitment to advancing science and benefitting humanity.”
More About the Mission
NISAR is a joint Earth-observing mission between NASA and ISRO. JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, leads the U.S. component of the project and is providing the mission’s L-band SAR. NASA is also providing the radar reflector antenna, the deployable boom, a high-rate communication subsystem for science data, GPS receivers, a solid-state recorder, and payload data subsystem. ISRO is providing the spacecraft bus, the S-band SAR, the launch vehicle, and associated launch services and satellite mission operations.
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