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GEDI scientists share space laser excitement
by Kathryn Cawdrey for GSFC News
Greenbelt MD (SPX) Dec 03, 2018

Close up of the GEDI payload instrument.

A new NASA laser instrument set to launch to the International Space Station in December will help scientists create the first three-dimensional map of the world's temperate and tropical forests.

The Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation, or GEDI, is scheduled to launch on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. From the station, GEDI's advanced laser technology will reveal the three-dimensional structure of forest ecosystems around the globe.

Ahead of the instrument's launch, GEDI scientists shared their experiences building a space laser and what they're looking forward to discovering with the new data:

Ralph Dubayah
Seeing the final GEDI instrument built and sitting in the space simulation chamber was incredible. The door was open and you could see the telescope itself. It made all this hard work we did seem worthwhile. It's been a really hard pull. It takes a lot of effort to propose an instrument to a competition, to work out all the details, to fund it, and to build it. After we finished it and tested it, we saw that it works! To see it in front of you, it's like your baby.

Getting an instrument like this to space is a really collaborative effort, and it takes a lot of people working together to make it happen. This includes both the science team and the engineers. I think we've set a standard for how you can have a fast, cost-effective instrument that is capable of great science. We've elevated the bar for what's possible in this timeframe and this budget, but time will tell. To get to this point has been amazing.

Now, I'm looking forward to the actual data from GEDI. These are data that we've wanted for 20 years, and what many members of the science community need to make important scientific advances.

Bryan Blair
I'm the translator between the engineering and the science. The scientists know what they want, but they don't know quite how to get it. The engineers know what they can build, but not what they need to build.

I've got a background in math, physics, and engineering. I started about 20 years ago, exploring different techniques with lasers to measure tree heights. The canopy height and the structure are the missing pieces. We have lots of good 2-D imagery of forests from airborne instruments and satellites. Laser instruments like GEDI actually penetrate into the canopy and let you expand that into a 3-D view.

GEDI was challenging from day one. Absolutely challenging. It's been a long road. We tried to do this before and ran into technical problems. Winning missions in a competition is tough. It's very competitive. It usually takes a few tries.

Lola Fatoyinbo
My focus is on tropical forests, and I also do a lot of work in wetlands and mangrove forests. I'm very excited to have GEDI data! I will work on using GEDI data in mangrove forests and on combining its data with data sets from other instruments, such as synthetic aperture radar (SAR), as well as optical data from Landsat, for example.

We had a flight campaign called AfriSAR, which took us to Gabon in central Africa. We flew two NASA instruments, including the Land, Vegetation, and Ice Sensor, or LVIS. The LVIS instrument is very similar to GEDI, and the data helped us to better understand what we can expect to measure with GEDI. It was a huge campaign with multiple aircraft and a lot of coordinating, but it was very exciting! Gabon was a difficult environment to get data from because of the dense, tall and pristine forest there. But the data we collected in Gabon will help prepare and calibrate four current and upcoming NASA and international spaceborne missions, including GEDI.

Laura Duncanson
I've been working on NASA's GEDI mission since early 2015, and one of my main focuses has been on the development of the footprint-level aboveground biomass algorithms. This is essentially a digital recipe book for translating GEDI data into estimates of forest mass or carbon content, so it's one of the most exciting products to work on from a climate change perspective.

To develop these algorithms has been a huge team effort - the product co-leads, Jim Kellner and John Armston, and myself have been working with a large group of scientists from around the world to collect field and airborne measurements of forests. To build our models we rely on these data: measurements of tree trunk sizes (from hugging trees with a tape measure), tree heights and species identification, and airborne lidar datasets that can be processed to simulate GEDI data.

We actually have a really small budget for new field and airborne data collection, so we reached out to researchers from all over the world, and many contributed their datasets for free - and the more high-quality data we can get to build our biomass models, the better our biomass products will be! It has been very rewarding working with this network of researchers and we hope to continue these collaborations into the future. It has also made it clear how excited people are to receive GEDI data. We can't wait to see what this community will discover using GEDI data in their areas of interest.

Scott Goetz
After many years of preparation - over a decade - we are on the cusp of having a space-borne lidar instrument that is designed for land research and applications. This is something the ecosystem science community has been seeking for decades, yet past attempts have never made it to orbit.

When GEDI achieves orbit and the data from the instrument reach the science community, I think we will see a revolution in research and applications related to ecosystem dynamics, including forestry, biodiversity and hydrology.

I am personally excited about incorporating much-improved forest carbon stock and canopy structure changes in policy-oriented applications that inform international sustainable development goals and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. These include specific targets focused on protection, restoration and sustainable management of terrestrial ecosystems.

Countries around the world, particularly tropical countries that have rich forest and biodiversity resources, will benefit tremendously in being able to understand how these forests are doing. In this way GEDI will enable not just all the exciting science that is surely to come, but it will also help countries sustain their forests and the myriad ecosystem services they provide - from local community provisioning to global scale carbon and water cycling.

GEDI is long overdue. I can hardly wait to see what we can do with the unique data it will provide. At long last we will have access to the 3rd dimension of global forests!

Related Links
Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI)
Space Technology News - Applications and Research

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NRL demonstrates new non-mechanical laser steering technology
Washington DC (SPX) Nov 26, 2018
Scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory have recently demonstrated a new nonmechanical chip-based beam steering technology that offers an alternative to costly, cumbersome and often unreliable and inefficient mechanical gimbal-style laser scanners. The chip, known as a steerable electro-evanescent optical refractor, or SEEOR, takes laser light in the mid-wavelength infrared (MWIR) as an input and steers the beam in two dimensions at the output without the need for mechanical devices - dem ... read more

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