The Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina is seen from the International Space Station on Feb. 21, 2012.

Next-generation technology to measure climate change from space

Image credit: Nasa

Nasa will fund the creation of a new research organisation that will look to improve climate change measurements by observing atoms in outer space.

The new Nasa Quantum Pathways Institute will build technology and tools to improve the measurement of important climate factors. 

“We are peering into a universe that we’ve never peered into before,” said Daniel Blumenthal, a professor at UC Santa Barbara. 

Led by colleagues at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, Blumenthal and the other researchers will focus on quantum sensing, which involves observing how atoms react to small changes in their environment.

The observations will then be used to infer the time variations in the gravity field of the Earth, allowing scientists to improve the accuracy in measurements of several important climate processes, such as sea level rise, rate of ice melt, changes in land water resources and ocean heat storage changes.

“There have been tremendous advances in quantum methods recently, mostly in the context of computing,” said Srinivas Bettadpur, director of the Center for Space Research at UT Austin. 

“We want to use quantum sensing technology in space - where you can watch the entirety of the planet - to solve next-generation problems by observing, interpreting and understanding climate processes."

This will be the first effort to establish what is known as ‘Quantum 2.0’. That is, advancing beyond the quantum principles known in physics and actually translating them into usable device concepts.

As climate shifts so, too, do gravitational forces around the Earth and in outer space. Atoms orbiting the Earth react to those gravitational changes. By measuring those reactions, the researchers can give better readings of changes in climate processes. 

Although part of the technology required to conduct this research already exist, the project will not be able to succeed without new technology. 

“In order to do this, we have to take the lasers and photonics and modulators and control electronics that make up 90 per cent of the atom experiments here on Earth and work really hard to get all that precision onto small, low-power chips that can be deployed in space,” said Blumenthal. 

Beyond the ability to address Earth’s climate issues, the new technology could eventually be deployed for other, Earth-based applications as well as for purposes of future space exploration.

The new Quantum Pathways Institute also includes researchers from University of Colorado Boulder, California Institute of Technology and the US National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST).

The researchers received $15m (£12.3m) in funding from Nasa for the institute, which will be provided over a five-year period.  

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