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NASA to focus on Earth in 2014 (photos)

For NASA, 2014 will be "the year of Earth Science," according to agency administrator Charles Bolden. NASA will launch three separate missions next year to monitor wind patterns, CO2 and moisture. Scientists hope the data gathered will help them understand how climate change is affecting Earth.

Wind watcher

In April 2014, NASA will send a device called RapidScat to the International Space Station. It will be carried there by SpaceX's Dragon Capsule and installed on the European Space Agency's wing of the orbiting science lab.

RapidScat will collect information about the speed and direction of wind on the surface of Earth's oceans. The data can be used to improve hurricane forecasting, said RapidScat system engineer Dragana Perkovic-Martin.

It's called RapidScat because it's a radar-based device known as a scatterometer - and it was built in a hurry. In 2009 a similar satellite stopped working, so scientists at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory dreamed up RapidScat to replace it. It is being built from parts left over from a previous mission.

Overall, the project is expected to take less than two years and cost $26 million. That's a fast and cheap mission for NASA.

Where does the carbon go?

In July 2014, NASA will send a satellite called Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 into space. Its goal is to track global levels of CO2.

OCO-2, as it's known, is based on OCO-1, a carbon tracking satellite that was launched in 2009. That mission failed before reaching orbit, and the satellite wound up in the Indian Ocean.

One of this new satellite's goals is to help scientists understand how carbon dioxide levels change throughout the year. Deputy project manager Annmarie Eldering says she hopes it will also solve the mystery of the disappearing CO2.

Eldring says when humans burn fossil fuels, some carbon dioxide goes into the air, some is absorbed by the ocean, but about one tenth of it seems to vanish.

"So that's the missing carbon we are also trying to understand with this mission," Eldering explained.

She says right now, most carbon dioxide data come from ground-based measurements. the OCO-2 satellite will give NASA a much bigger picture of how this greenhouse gas is interacting with the planet.

OCO-2 is designed for a two year mission, with a price tag of around $468 million.

Follow the water

The third and final Earth-focused mission of 2014 is a satellite called Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP).

It's a complicated device that looks like a gold refrigerator with a giant spinning umbrella above it.  SMAP will measure soil moisture by bouncing radio waves off of the planet. 

Currently, some of these data are gathered by a European instrument called Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS). NASA's SMAP will be five times more accurate, said project systems engineer Shawn Goodman.

SMAP will give detailed information about droughts, enable better predictions of crop yields, and paint a picture of how global warming is changing the planet.

"I really feel like I am doing something important," Goodman said of the mission. It's "one of the coolest things I could possibly do."

SMAP will launch in October and is projected to cost $914 millions dollars.