Unraveling Phytoplankton Species from the Vastness of Space

Designed to unveil the secrets of the sea's smallest inhabitants, the PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, and ocean Ecosystem) satellite will scrutinize oceanic hues, decoding the whereabouts of diverse phytoplankton species.


Miniature yet mighty, phytoplankton, the lifeblood of the Earth’s oceanic ecosystem, will be under NASA’s orbital microscope by early 2024, offering a fresh perspective on these marine marvels.

PACE Satellite: Unraveling Phytoplankton Species From Space

Designed to unveil the secrets of the sea’s smallest inhabitants, the PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, and ocean Ecosystem) satellite will scrutinize oceanic hues, decoding the whereabouts of diverse phytoplankton species.


Phytoplankton, minuscule photosynthesizing organisms, inhabit the ocean’s surface, absorbing sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce oxygen and carbohydrate-rich sugars. These sugars, crucial to the ocean food web, sustain larger marine animals, making primary production – the creation of these sugars from sunlight – indispensable.

Despite constituting less than 1% of the Earth’s photosynthesizing biomass, phytoplankton account for approximately 45% of global primary production. Their absence would lead to the collapse of most oceanic food chains, causing a ripple effect that would profoundly impact marine life and humans dependent on seafood.

Breathing Life Into the Ocean and the Atmosphere

In addition to their nutritional offerings, phytoplankton contribute significantly to our planet’s oxygen supply. Their photosynthetic activities, dating back over 3 billion years, have generated approximately half of the Earth’s total oxygen.

Phytoplankton also play a pivotal role in the global carbon cycle, absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Ivona Cetinić, an oceanographer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, emphasizes the diversity among phytoplankton species, which influences their roles within Earth’s carbon systems.


The Carbon Cycle and Phytoplankton

Some phytoplankton, like Emiliana huxleyi, store carbon in their outer shells, sequestering carbon at oceanic depths upon their demise. Other species serve as a preferred food source for specific marine creatures, while some capture carbon through photosynthesis, re-releasing it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide upon decomposition.

“Pace’s oceanic phytoplankton diversity insights will enhance our understanding of carbon flow in the oceans, both presently and in the future,” anticipates Cetinić.

Phytoplankton Blooms and Polar Life

In chillier high-latitude waters, it blooms – vast, space-visible growth spurts – are vital for marine life. Numerous polar species depend on these timely nutrient explosions from clams and krill to walruses and whales for sustenance.

With the shifting timing and extent of sea ice retreat due to climate change, PACE will monitor changes in bloom timings, shedding light on potential ecosystem-wide impacts. The hyperspectral Ocean Color Instrument on PACE will detect over 100 distinct wavelengths globally daily, enabling phytoplankton species’ first-ever space-based identification.

The Dangerous Side of Phytoplankton

However, not all phytoplankton contribute positively to the ecosystem. Certain species can cause harmful algal blooms, producing toxins detrimental to humans and other marine species. By distinguishing harmful from harmless blooms, PACE’s data will assist water managers and scientists mitigate these detrimental effects and prevent future blooms.


Phytoplankton Legacy and PACE’s Promises

Previous satellite missions, including Terra, Aqua, Landsat, and SeaWiFS, paved the way for PACE by gathering phytoplankton data since the 1990s. PACE, managed by NASA Goddard, will enhance our ability to differentiate and track phytoplankton species globally.

The mission’s potential excites Aimee Neeley, a NASA Goddard oceanographer, who foresees “endless research opportunities” arising from the Ocean Color Instrument’s hyperspectral nature.

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Written by Justin Gurkinic

Hey, my name is Justin, and my friends call me Gurk. Why? Becuase of my last name. It sounds like a vegetable. Kind of. I love sleeping and writing. History is my thing.

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