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Space and Earth Science

NASA’s Ames Research Center assists in the agency’s astrophysics efforts in the areas of exoplanet characterization, lab astrophysics and astrochemistry, and radiative transfer research, among others.

A world map with different regions colored according to predicted future temperature

About Space and Earth Science

NASA’s primary mission is to seek understanding about the cosmos, including all the stars in the sky, the other planets beyond and within our solar system, and our own Earth. The fields of space and Earth science cover a range of scientific disciplines, making use of a variety of different techniques. Satellites are essential for looking back at our own Earth, and telescopes in orbit allow us to look further into the cosmos than is possible on the ground.

Ames’ Role and Facilities


The fields of astronomy and astrophysics are the bedrock of how NASA gains knowledge of the universe beyond our solar system. Ames assists in the agency’s astrophysics efforts in the areas of exoplanet characterization, lab astrophysics and astrochemistry, and radiative transfer research, among others. Astrophysics intersects with Ames’ other areas of expertise, leveraging supercomputing for complex simulations, astrophysics and astrochemistry facilities that contribute towards planetary science, and the development of space technologies like coronagraphs that enable future scientific research.

Planetary Science

The study of other planetary bodies is an interdisciplinary field that consists of geology, astronomy, astrobiology, astrochemistry, and more. Planetary science at Ames studies our closest neighbors and the furthest bodies of our solar system, specializing in planet modelling and researching the origins and evolution of planetary systems. Ames’ expertise is preparing us to search for life on Mars, unravelling the mysteries of distant worlds like Pluto, and investigating the origins of our solar system, and more.

Earth Science

The most striking images we have of our own Earth come from NASA missions. From the vantage point of low Earth orbit, NASA technologies are able to study Earth and understand how it’s changing. At Ames, research projects in Earth science include studying climate change, carbon cycles, and ecosystems, Earth’s surface and interior, the composition of the atmosphere, weather, and water and energy cycles. The tools Ames researchers use include instruments in space and in the air on planes and drones, data systems and archives, and computational power to create data products and models. All this research is available to the wider Earth science community and the public.

Featured Examples

Kepler Space Telescope

When a planet crosses directly between us and its star, we see the star dim slightly because the planet is blocking out a portion of the light. This is one method scientists use to find exoplanets. They make a plot called a light curve with the brightness of the star versus time. Using this plot, scientists can see what percentage of the star’s light the planet blocks and how long it takes the planet to cross the disk of the star.
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Born from the mind of William “Bill” Borucki, the Kepler Space Telescope has redefined how we think of other planets beyond our solar system, revealing that there are more planets than stars in the cosmos. The Kepler Mission was specifically designed to survey our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover hundreds of Earth-size and smaller planets in or near the habitable zone and determine the fraction of the hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy that might have such planets. Kepler finds planets by looking for tiny dips in the brightness of a star when a planet crosses in front of it—also known as a transit.

First launched in 2009, the telescope’s original mission lasted until 2013. After that, the follow up mission K2 continued using the telescopes capabilities until 2018. Much of the talent, expertise, and techniques developed for Kepler continue on in the TESS mission run by NASA Goddard.

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Fluid Lensing and NASA NeMO-Net

A user playing the new NeMO-Net game that helps NASA classify the world's coral from their own home
A user playing the new NeMO-Net game that helps NASA classify the world’s coral from their own home
u003cstrongu003eu003cemu003eCredits: NASA//Ved Chirayathu003c/emu003eu003c/strongu003e

Whenever you look through water, the objects you see look distorted by the water’s surface. Fluid lensing is a technique for imaging through the ocean’s surface. Researchers at the Laboratory for Advanced Sensing at NASA Ames are developing two technologies using fluid lensing: FluidCam and MiDAR, the Multispectral Imaging, Detection, and Active Reflectance instrument. The data from these technologies give us a better look at the ocean’s surface than we’ve ever had before.  

Enter NeMO-Net, a video game in which players identify and classify corals using 3D images while virtually traveling the ocean on their own research vessel, the Nautilus. Principal investigator Ved Chirayath at Ames developed the neural network behind the game, also called NeMO-Net, or the Neural Multi-Modal Observation and Training Network, which will use player input to build a global coral map.

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Astrochemistry Research

Though most space sciences considers the cosmos on a macro scale, looking at the rotations of planets and stars, the formation of galaxies and nebula, some of the most essential questions about the physics and chemical composition of our universe must be explored on the micro-scale. Understanding the materials that give birth to stars, planets, our own solar system, and even the building blocks of life are part of the domain of astrochemistry.

Ames has multiple facilities that work in this field, including the Cosmic Simulation Chamber, or COSmIC, and the Astrophysics and Astrochemistry laboratory. The Astrophysics and Astrochemistry lab studies elements of planetary atmospheres, ices on interstellar grains, comets, and planets, and even uses laboratory samples of actual extraterrestrial materials in their research. COSmIC focuses on simulating laboratory equivalents of the gas and dust that exist between and around stars, as well as planetary materials, at the temperatures and vacuum conditions one would find in space.

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