Light detection and ranging (LiDAR) 3D laser scanning technology is used by marine biologists, land surveyors, engineers and many other professionals to collect information from elevated environments. This technology is able to quickly gather geo-spatial data in numerous environments and conditions, giving researchers and professionals accurate information on objects and spaces they wouldn't have been able to get otherwise. NASA has long turned to LiDAR technology to help its scientists and climate modelers better understand the Earth's environment and conditions, and the institution is once more investing in LiDAR technology to gather information on Earth's climate.
NASA invests in LiDAR
According to online photonics news source Optics.org, NASA has awarded technology manufacturer Ball Aerospace & Technologies a $4.3 million, three-year contract to create a lidar-based tool for the organization. The news source reported the project will be known as HAWC-OAWL, which is the acronym for optical autocovariance wind lidar for aerosols winds and clouds. The new lidar tool, which Optics noted will be high resolution, will be used to study the Earth's cloud formations and how the wind moves small particles from one part of the Earth to another.
Ball Aerospace noted it will build on current OAWL technology, which has been used by NASA in the past. Optics reported NASA conducted test flights of airborne OAWL technology three years ago. The new tool will include a second laser telescope and wavelength. A second laser would allow the tool to point in two directions at once, according to Ball Aerospace, giving HAWC-OAWL the ability to better measure wind speeds and profiles. According to Optics, HAWC-OAWL will have a 1,064 nanometer wavelength backscatter and depolarization.
Earth's wind patterns and cycles remain aspects of the planet's environment that need further study.
"The HAWC-OAWL measurements will help scientists better understand how co-located aerosols and winds interact in cloud formations," said Sara Tucker, who is the principal investigator of the project for Ball Aerospace. "Understanding this interaction is critically important for predicting cloud properties and brightness."
According to Tucker, the tool will be able to measure how winds and aerosols impact cloud radiative forcing, essentially providing new insight into global warming.
Why NASA continuously turns to laser scanners
This isn't NASA's first time using LiDAR technology to study the Earth, and chances are it won't be the last. According to NASA, the organization has a history of using 3D laser scanning technology – specifically LiDAR technology – to measure the Earth's climate and study particles in the atmosphere. NASA noted that nearly every manufactured satellite in Earth's orbit that are meant to keep track of the weather relies on laser scanners.
According to NASA, it uses a space-based LiDAR tool especially "to penetrate thin or broken clouds to 'see' through to the troposphere (i.e., the lower part of the atmosphere where weather systems develop)." This specific tool is called the Lidar In-Space Technology Experiment (LITE), and was started back in the early 1990s. Much has changed in regards to the Earth's climate and available technology since then, hence one of the reasons behind NASA looking to utilize a new LiDAR tool.