Jumbo Content

NASA Sets the PACE for Advanced Studies of Earth's Changing Climate
The Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission will deliver the most comprehensive look at global ocean color measurements in NASA's history. Not only will PACE monitor the health of our ocean, its science data will expand atmospheric studies by sensing our skies over an exceptionally broad spectrum of wavelengths.

A strategic climate continuity mission in support of NASA's Plan for a Climate-Centric Architecture for Earth Observations and Applications from Space (2010), PACE will monitor aerosol particles, clouds, and many factors related to the marine carbon cycle including the phytoplankton pigment, chlorophyll. Moreover, PACE applications will help with many of our most pressing environmental issues such as harmful algal bloom and air quality forecasts.

Why Do We Need PACE?

Movement in the ocean is a complex interplay of currents and eddies. High above earth's surface, satellite sensors specifically tuned to see colors of the ocean reveal the presence of life: swirls and streaks as beautiful as masterpiece paintings. Beyond their beauty, these images provide valuable information about biological and chemical processes in our ocean.

Marine ecosystems depend on the health and productivity of single-celled organisms called phytoplankton. These algae either swim weakly or not at all. They spend their lives suspended in seawater, at the mercy of the ocean's motion. With dissolved carbon dioxide readily available, phytoplankton need only two additional things to survive: sunlight and nutrients.

Carbon cycle
Carbon takes many forms: from invisible gases to billions of living things. Society has come to depend on carbon-based resources and the energy harnessed within their chemical bonds. For centuries, burning of fossil fuels has moved hydrocarbons from deep underground to Earth's atmosphere. And our vast ocean has helped to keep Earth in balance by absorbing carbon dioxide gas. But we are now seeing that this process, which affects all of our lives, may have its limits.

When carbon cycles from land or the ocean into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, it acts like a blanket, trapping heat and raising temperatures on Earth. In natural balance and along with other natural "greenhouse" gases such as water vapor, this process has maintained the planet at habitably comfortable temperatures.

The atmosphere and ocean are inextricably linked. Earth relies on atmospheric circulation and ocean currents to regulate the distribution of heat. Thus deciphering the ocean-atmosphere conversation is key to predicting the future of our climate.

The amount of sun's heat reaching the ocean surface is tied to clouds and aerosols, tiny airborne particles and liquids suspended in our atmosphere. On the other hand, ocean itself can be a strong source of atmospheric aerosols, influencing climate though direct obstruction of sunlight as well as changes to clouds' reflective properties.

There are significant gaps in scientific understanding on how clouds are formed and behave in remote marine environments. This information is crucial because Earth's heat balance is dominated by clouds over the ocean.

The 2007 Report, Earth Science and Application from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade, called for "societal needs to guide scientific priorities more effectively."

In response, PACE Applications will partner with public and private organizations on ways to apply data from PACE and its scientific findings in their decision-making activities and services, helping to improve the quality of life and strengthen the economy.

Question mark
  • What are the biomass and compositions of ocean ecosystems? How and why are they changing?
  • How and why are Earth's biological and geochemical cycles changing?
  • How is matter exchanged between the land and ocean? How does this exchange influence coastal ecosystems?
  • How do aerosols influence the ocean?
  • How do ocean biological and light-related chemical processes the ocean affect the atmosphere?
  • How does the ocean's motion affect biology and geochemistry (and vice versa)?
  • What are the distributions of habitats and ecosystems along the coasts?
  • How do variations in biological and geochemical factors impact the biodiversity of coastal estuaries, tidal wetlands, and large lakes?
  • How does material that originated on land affect the compositions of phytoplankton communities?
  • How do the types of phytoplankton communities affect the cycling of organic matter?
  • How do processes such as sedimentation, degradation of materials by light, and respiration affect the cycling of organic matter along the coasts?
  • What are the long-term changes in aerosol and cloud properties?
  • How are these properties related to year-to-year variations in climate?
  • How do aerosols affect radiative forcing (i.e., difference between sunlight absorbed by the Earth and the energy radiated back to space)?
  • To what extent is aerosol-based radiative forcing is caused by human activity?
  • How do aerosols influence ocean ecosystems, biological and geochemical cycles?

Major Areas of Activity


PACE will extend climate records by collecting key global data using a design-to-cost approach

PACE's wide spectral coverage will provide a wide variety of atmospheric and ocean science products

PACE will help improve climate studies, fisheries management, Harmful Algal Bloom forecasts, and more
Field Campaigns

PACE will benefit from numerous ship-based and airborne studies being conducted worldwide

Broadening the Spectrum
Unlike previous U.S. ocean color sensors (i.e., "heritage" sensors), the PACE Ocean Color Instrument will provide continuous high-spectral-resolution observations from the ultraviolet (UV) to near infrared (i.e., 350 – 800 nanometers), plus several short-wave infrared (SWIR) bands. PACE's broad spectral coverage will unveil a variety of new products to aid our understanding of the atmosphere and ocean.

For example, UV wavelengths will reveal the distributions of aerosols that absorb sunlight. In the ocean, UV data will help discriminate between living and non-living components of the upper ocean. Visible wavelengths will be used to identify the composition of phytoplankton communities. These micro-organisms not only serve as the base of the marine food web, they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produce much of the oxygen we breathe.

Finally, SWIR bands will support studies of clouds and aerosols, key pieces to solving the climate change puzzle.

Social Media

NASA studies the ocean and its role supporting life on Earth, providing ocean color, sea surface temperature and sea surface salinity data and images.


Your planet is changing, and we're on it. NASA uses the vantage point of space to increase our understanding of Earth and improve lives.

PACE will provide systematic observations and continuity for ongoing ocean color research, systematic observations of aerosol and clouds in the climate record, and enhanced ocean color remote sensing over a broad spectrum. The long-term record of observations of advanced ocean biology, ecology, and biogeochemistry will directly benefit society by monitoring the extent and impacts of climate change.