(CNN) -- Aiming for the clouds rather than the stars, NASA has announced plans for a trio of small spacecraft missions designed to explore the Earth's atmospheric systems early in the new millennium.
Each of the missions is projected to cost under $200 million. All are part of NASA's Mission to Planet Earth, a long-term, coordinated research enterprise designed to study the Earth as a global environmental system.
Estimated cost: $173.5 million. (NASA provides $117.4 million; France provides $56.1 million)
A mission with a long-winded title -- even by NASA standards -- the Pathfinder Instruments for Cloud and Aerosol Spaceborne Observation (PICASSO) will be a joint effort of NASA's Langley Research Center and the Institut Pierre Simon Laplace in Paris, France.
The project is designed to address the role of clouds and small atmospheric particles known as aerosols and their effect on the Earth's temperature.
PICASSO's instruments will profile the vertical distribution of clouds and aerosols and create images of the infrared (heat) emission of the atmosphere.
Data gathered by the satellite, in conjunction with other Earth observation satellites, should eventually improve the ability of meteorologists to make short-term weather forecasts and long-term climate forecasts, NASA officials said.
"For the first time we will be able to construct the three-dimensional structures of the atmosphere to better understand the role of clouds and aerosols in Earth's climate," said Dr. Ghassem Asrar, NASA's associate administrator for Earth sciences.
Estimated cost: $144.6 million
The CloudSat spacecraft would use advanced cloud-profiling radar to provide information on the vertical structure of highly dynamic tropical cloud systems, according to NASA.
It will also obtain measurements of cloud properties for the first time on a global basis, perhaps revolutionizing scientists' understanding of cloud-related issues.
Estimated cost: $48 million
The Volcanic Ash Mission (VOLCAM), to be developed as an alternate to CloudSat, is an experimental mission to demonstrate the operational and scientific applications of monitoring volcanic clouds and aerosols from a geostationary orbit, NASA said.
Volcanic eruptions, in addition to causing air traffic hazards, increase the amount of aerosol particles in the upper atmosphere, which scatter sunlight and lead to cooler temperatures at the Earth's surface.
Data obtained by VOLCAM could lead to improved models of global atmospheric circulation a and better understanding of how volcanic aerosols are dispersed, NASA said.
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