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Communications Specialist

Laura Faye Tenenbaum is a science communicator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and teaches oceanography at Glendale Community College.

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April 16, 2015
09:31 PDT
Earth Day: Give peas a chance

“Excuse me. What kind of plants are those?”

I was squatting down in my front yard as I do every morning, picking veggies for breakfast, when I heard a voice behind me. I stood up and turned around. It was a neighbor from across the street and three houses down. “They’re peas,” I told him.

A few years back, we were among the first in our neighborhood to rip out the grass in our parkway so we could plant drought-tolerant succulents and other cool-looking plants instead of boring, old, water-sucking grass. Little did I know that, along with saving money and water, the process also attracted the curiosity of lots of people on our street. We were bucking the trend, breaking the norm, doing something different. And people wanted to hear all about our new way-cooler-looking-than-grass plants.

Then we created a vegetable garden in the front yard. The goal was to have a cool modern-looking yard and have some fun growing and eating good food. We succeeded in harvesting enough kale, tomatoes, artichokes, chard and peas to feast on for many weeks (and I was able to include my own home-grown items in the yummy edible NASA satellite models I made).

But our gardening exploits brought us another unexpected advantage. We were already growing food in our backyard and side yard, but we learned that when you plant cool stuff in the front yard, lots of passersby stop to check it out. It’s usually the artichokes that evoke the most frequent comments and questions. I mean, artichokes are weird-looking. (Shhh, don’t you dare tell them I said that!) But over the years our vegetable garden has become a magnet that’s attracted friendship and community in our neighborhood. And we’ve seen many other lawns turn into gardens, too.

There’s no way to tell what will unfold when you start to do something, even the smallest thing. Actions grow and expand, sort of like the way our peas started out small, crawled past their trellises and are now getting tangled up into each other. What you create in the world can take on a life of its own, beyond what you might ever imagine.

Every Earth Day I write about taking an individual action, and every time I write this I get all kinds of criticism about how doing one small thing isn’t enough. But next time you start to think that your actions are too small to make a difference, think about me and my silly old peas. Remember that I reached down, picked a fresh pea and handed it across the stucco wall to the guy who lives down the street—the guy whom I hadn’t yet connected with in all these years; one of the last of my neighbors to reach out. He told me that he and his wife saw our yard and decided to plant a garden as well.

And while you’re at it, remember to celebrate Earth Day this year by joining NASA as we all share views of our favorite place on Earth on social media. We hope that if all of us take a moment to acknowledge and remember our planet, we'll feel more connected to it.

You can post photos, Vines and/or Instagram videos. Just be sure to include the hashtag #NoPlaceLikeHome – no matter what social media platform you’re using.

You can also get on board now by using our #NoPlaceLikeHome emoji as your profile pic. Join the Facebook or Google+ events and invite your friends to participate. Pledge to spend one day celebrating the planet that over 7 billion people call home.

Find out more at http://www.nasa.gov/likehome/.

Thanks for everything you do to care for our planet.

I look forward to your comments.

Laura

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April 8, 2015
14:14 PDT
Earth Day: All the drops add up

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a high school student in Michigan. She was working on a climate change research project and wanted to ask me a few questions, so of course I said yes. She asked me about my job at NASA, what I thought were the most pressing aspects of Earth’s changing climate, and the ocean’s role in long-term climate trends.

But then there was this question: “I like to do everything I can each day to reduce my own contribution to climate change … I want to encourage my peers to take small actions each day to help our climate, but will it really matter beyond making people feel good about themselves? ... It seems like there is nothing individuals can do.”

Now I’m a pretty direct person, but I’m also fairly kind to high school students, especially those I’ve never even met. Yet this time, I let her have it: “You are wrong,” I stated bluntly, wishing an error buzzer noise could accompany my outgoing email message. “You are wrong about your own contribution being insignificant. One person's efforts are hugely important and don't you ever forget it.”

Sure, I understand it’s easy to feel completely overwhelmed and powerless in the face of a tremendous problem such as climate change. I work on a climate change website every day—I get it. Just thinking about climate change and other environmental issues gets depressing. These problems are too big; they feel insurmountable. And then when you want to do something, it seems like whatever you do is too small, like a tiny drop in a gigantic pit.

But each and every single individual action, no matter how small it may seem, adds to what ultimately makes a difference. You may think, “One person isn’t going to make a big difference; it’s not going to be a big deal.” But taking responsibility for how your life affects the environment is a huge deal.

The Earth is amazing. And when you look at the view from space you see that the whole Earth is your home, our home. You see that what happens on the other side of the planet matters.

So go ahead: Take the journey from “there’s not much I can do” to “there are many things I will commit to doing.” Because together, our individual actions can make a bigger impact than you might ever imagine. And since Earth Day is coming up on April 22, now is the perfect time to begin that journey.

One of the things we’re doing to celebrate Earth Day this year is asking people around the world to share on social media views of their favorite place on Earth. As we rush through our busy lives, sometimes we forget to appreciate how much we care about this place we call home. We hope that if all of us take a moment to acknowledge and remember our planet, we'll feel more connected with it. And that's one small step toward making it a better place.

You can post photos, Vines and/or Instagram videos. Just be sure to include the hashtag #NoPlaceLikeHome – no matter what social media platform you’re using.

You can also get on board now by using our #NoPlaceLikeHome emoji as your profile pic. Join the Facebook or Google+ events and invite your friends to participate. Pledge to spend one day celebrating the planet that over 7 billion people call home.

Find out more at http://www.nasa.gov/likehome/.

Thanks for everything you do to care for our planet.

Laura

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March 25, 2015
12:30 PDT

A visualization of land plant fluorescence across North America and South America from 2007 to 2011. The data were combined to depict a single average year. Gray indicates regions with little or no fluorescence; red, pink and white indicate regions of high fluorescence. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.
“There are lots of dimensions of light that we cannot see with our eyes,” NASA Earth scientist Joshua Fisher explained, gesturing towards a couple of olive trees, “That’s the interesting science NASA does.” It was the third day of spring and we were sitting at a picnic table in the shade, yakking away about fluorescent light, which plants emit during photosynthesis. 

Light travels in waves. The human eye is adapted to see a small range of those waves in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. A few NASA instruments, such as MODIS on the Aqua and Terra satellites, the Landsat suite of satellites, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Cassini, just to name a few, make observations in the visible part of the spectrum. But NASA has also created sensors specifically designed to pick up light waves outside of the visible spectrum. These instruments can observe additional electromagnetic wave energies, from the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation left over from the Big Bang to high-energy gamma rays, and everything in between, and help us understand more about Earth and the universe.

Plant fluorescence has become a new global measurement within the last few years. NASA scientists, such as Fisher, have begun measuring fluorescence from space and using these measurements to monitor photosynthesis around the globe. See, the chlorophyll in plants absorbs certain wavelengths of light, Fisher explained, pointing at the olive trees again. Some of that light drives photosynthesis, and a small amount of those wavelengths are stretched by plants and re-emitted as fluorescent light. So the amount of fluorescence those plants are giving off is directly proportional to the amount of photosynthesis they’re doing.

The primary purpose of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO-2), which launched in July 2014, is to monitor global carbon dioxide. But the spectrometer on OCO-2 has a secondary function: It also measures fluorescence. This means that with this one instrument, we can now see photosynthesis from space and find out how much carbon dioxide plants are removing from our atmosphere. That’s killer!

“It’s the first time that we can directly see from space what the plants are actually doing.” Fisher said.

Observing photosynthesis gives us an immediate indication of plant health, telling us how plants are reacting to drought or which species are struggling. And since plants draw down carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere, we need to understand more about how they react to changing climate conditions.

This information will help farmers, climate modelers, scientists and even everyday people who like to sit in the shade of a tree and marvel at the light—all of the light, whether or not we can see it.

I look forward to your comments.

Laura

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This Thursday, March 19, NASA’s latest mission will begin preparation for its next great milestone: making the wicked-amazing antenna rotate.

A number of spacecraft have rotating parts, such as the RapidScat mission and the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission, but those don’t hold a candle to the dynamics of Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP).

SMAP’s antenna is 20 feet in diameter. The larger the antenna, the more complex its behavior can be, which makes it more difficult to control. Just imagine swinging a 20-foot baseball bat over your head. Yikes!

Right now the antenna is locked in position until the mission “ops” (operations) team completes its checks of the entire instrument’s function and confirms operability. They have taken measurements with the radar and the radiometer. They know the instruments are working by comparing the measurements to how they were tested on the ground before launch. The signals look appropriate; they're seeing what’s expected. But the antenna’s fixed position means it’s measuring only a small strip of the ground below.

Once the antenna starts to spin, we’ll be able to measure a much larger area and monitor soil moisture around the entire Earth every two to three days.

These are the three steps to achieving “spin up”:

1. Engineers unlock the antenna.

2. A few days later, they spin the antenna slowly.

3. They gradually spin it faster.

At each step, they’ll verify how it’s performing. The engineers will then conduct a more comprehensive checkout of the instrument’s systems. With the antenna spinning, they’ll get to see the instrument’s full performance for the first time.

After the spinning checkouts are completed … Voilà! Bibbidi bobbidi boo! SMAP will start mapping global soil moisture and return data!

I look forward to your comments.

Laura

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Life lessons from a NASA flight software engineer

Unless you call yourself a rocket scientist, you probably don’t think your daily routine has much in common with flight software engineering. But you would be wrong.

Flight software engineers write computer code for NASA spacecraft, which is complicated because—hello—flying spacecraft into space is complicated.

Flight software runs the instruments and sensors that operate thermal control, spin stabilization on all three axes, uplink and downlink to communicate with spacecraft, data collection and handling, a cruise phase, a descent phase and sometimes a “landing on the surface of a planet” phase. And some of this happens simultaneously. (And I thought feeding the cat and dog at the same time was rough.)

If the spacecraft is far away, like, dude, on Mars or beyond, there’s no controlling it from the ground with a joystick, so the software has to be written to allow the spacecraft to run autonomously.

But the experiences of a flight-software-engineering person* are actually the same as the experiences of a regular-person person, from planning a family reunion, to cleaning the garage, to simply shopping for tonight’s dinner. If you skip the bits about the flying, disregard the software and pay no attention to the engineering, then what you’re left with is some amazingly useful life lessons:

  • Feasibility and performance requirements (or, Can I really do this?). Before you decide to take on any project, it’s best to figure out if it’s even feasible — then be very clear about your objectives so you’ll know when you’ve reached them. The more specific you are about your goal, the more likely you’ll know when you’ve arrived.
  • Manage layers of complexity (or, Bigger stuff is waaay harder to do). Complicated projects take more effort. I know that sounds totally obvious, but it’s true. The size of your endeavor, its newness and the number of people involved all add complexity. And that means adding time, money and energy. The more you can understand and predict complexity, the less effort you’ll have to expend correcting mistakes. So to minimize your difficulties, accurately predict complexity before you embark on a project.
  • Fault protection (or, Planning for trouble). Always expect the unexpected to creep into your plans. In fact, the more complicated something is, the more uncertainty you should anticipate. Most people are overly optimistic, oblivious to what may go askew. But requirements change and evolve throughout an undertaking’s life cycle. You can’t anticipate everything, but you can predict that something unusual or uncertain is going to occur, even if you don’t know exactly what that madness might entail. So at least factor contingency into your plans. And be malleable and adapt to new developments along the way—then, when that strange or remarkable event erupts, you’ll end up wasting less effort recovering.
  • System maturity (or, How to work in teams without killing each other). It’s more complicated trying to organize a new team than a familiar team. And a new task is more complicated than a task similar to what you’ve done before. If you’re working with the same people and you’re doing a similar project, you can just repeat yourself. But anything new is going to cost you. Although repeating yourself might seem advantageous, there’s also a disadvantage to being stuck in a rut. And because there are many interfaces, when working with complicated teams there has to be excellent communication between all the systems.

Thanks for reading, sharing and commenting, and happy flying!

Laura

*Thanks to JPL Flight Software Engineer Glenn Reeves for all of this valuable information.

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February 20, 2015
09:34 PST
A beautiful component of the climate equation

A painting from Graeme Stephens' 'Noble Clouds Under Variable Light' series (oil on canvas, 2003).

Last week, Graeme L. Stephens, the director for JPL’s Center for Climate Sciences, was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. “It’s a great honor,” he told me, “I’m surprised I was selected.” The National Academy of Engineering honors people who have made outstanding contributions and is the highest professional distinction for engineers.

Stephens
Graeme Stephens

Stephens received this honor for his study of clouds, specifically the way water in the atmosphere forms rain. Clouds control the climate because they reflect sunlight, but they also act as a greenhouse that traps heat. “Clouds are the most complex element of the climate equation and the most important aspect to understanding climate change,” Stephens said. And just in case you hadn’t noticed, they’re stunningly beautiful, too.

You might be wondering how a NASA scientist could receive an engineering honor. Well, like many scientists and engineers at NASA, Stephens worked to build a cohesive connection between the two disciplines, and his work represents “legs on both sides of a river.” The National Academy of Engineering has twelve multidisciplinary sections that bridge engineering and science. “Scientists think about problems that may not be able to be solved,” he said, “whereas engineers only do things that need to be solved.”

As a member of the academy, his duties will include helping to develop the Academy’s position on climate change. And as a member of the human race, he will continue to celebrate the wonder and the beauty of clouds. In addition to studying clouds, Stephens paints them. Check out more of Stephens paintings at the Cloudsat Art Gallery.

Painting 2
"The Noble Cumulus," oil and acrylic on canvas, from Stephens' Noble Clouds Under Variable Light Series, 2003.

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February 10, 2015
09:44 PST

Over the past twelve months, we’ve been feasting on a banquet of NASA Earth science launches — five, to be precise. NASA’s Earth Right Now Campaign kicked off back in February 2014 with the launch of the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite. And we just celebrated our fifth launch on January 31, 2015 with the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory.

To help you look back at this delectable year, I’ve put together a photo gallery of both the edible satellites that I created over the year and their actual NASA counterparts in space. All of the former are in my tummy, while all of the latter are successfully orbiting Earth right now, collecting valuable data to help us understand our climate.

 

1. Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM)

GPM
View larger image.
Global Perception Measurement (GPM) launched on Feb. 27, 2014. It provides information about rain and snow and how they interact within the Earth system. (Read original blog post.)

 

2. Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2)

OCO-2
View larger image.
Orbiting Carbon Obsevatory-2 (OCO-2) launched on July 2, 2014. It measures atmospheric carbon dioxide. (Read original blog post.)

 

3. International Space Station Rapid Scatterometer (ISS-RapidScat)

ISS-RapidScat
ISS-RapidScat was deployed to the International Space Station on Sept. 20, 2014. It monitors ocean surface wind speed and direction. (Read original blog post.)

 

4. Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS)

CATS
Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) was deployed to the International Space Station on Jan. 10, 2015. It measures small particles, called “aerosols,” and clouds. (Read original blog post.)

 

5. Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP)

SMAP
View larger image.
Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) launched on Jan. 31, 2015. It will map soil moisture, which will help improve our understanding of Earth’s water and carbon cycles. (Read original blog post.)

 

And hey, blog readers! Don’t just stand there laughing at my silly food models. I’m hoping at least one of you will go out there, get busy and create a fabulous masterpiece! It’s actually pretty fun, and I guarantee you’ll end up learning a ton.

Please post photos of your amazing edible satellite concoctions. Now GO!

Laura

NASA's Earth Right Now campaign is a series of five Earth science missions that launched into space in the same year, opening new and improved remote eyes to monitor our changing planet.

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February 3, 2015
10:54 PST
A 'gem in the sky'

The Delta II rocket carrying SMAP into space, as seen from Port Hueneme, Ventura. Credit: Jim Hoffman

Launches are a huge deal at NASA. It's a time when we get to celebrate the intersection between science, technology and engineering. From an engineering point of view, launches are the product that you’ve delivered — the big hurrah.

It’s the opportunity for all the people who worked on the project to see the outcome of their efforts; what they've poured their life into. It’s a career-fulfilling moment.

The latest such occasion came on Saturday, January 31, at 6:22 a.m. PST, when NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

On that morning, Jim Hoffman (JPL Earth science business operations manager) and his wife Jodie were up early near one of their favorite beaches in Port Hueneme in Ventura. They love the quiet of the morning and the chance to get focused. After texting friends who were at the launch site, they looked up toward the north and saw what looked like a red jet. They watched as it grew and grew until they knew it was the rocket.

“I like to spend time searching for sea glass from that beach,” Jim told me, “but this morning I found the gem in the sky.”

I look forward to your comments.

Laura

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It's countdown to launch
Another milestone in this amazing year of NASA Earth science
January 29, 2015
12:18 PST

Just one year ago, we waited eagerly, wide-eyed and almost breathlessly as NASA prepared to launch five Earth science missions within a single year’s span. And now, just one short year later, we’re here again, preparing for the next step in this great journey.

It’s countdown time to launch SMAP.

With four successes behind us, this one — this fifth launch — represents its own individual milestone, as well as a milestone of this amazing year for NASA Earth science.

I sat down with Erika Podest, a SMAP scientist, a couple of days before the launch to talk about the mission and what it means for her, for NASA and for the world.

To help you share this special landmark moment with us, I gathered a few important and interesting tidbits you might want to know about SMAP:

 

1. According to Dr. Podest, satellite remote sensing is “a revolutionary way of studying our planet.” It’s how she’s integrated her two favorite things: exuberant nature (due to growing up in Panama and spending every weekend walking through the jungle) and technology.​

Podest
SMAP Project Scientist Dr. Erika Podest poses inside JPL's spacecraft assembly facility where the SMAP antenna was built.

 

2. When we see photos of the rocket sitting on the Launchpad, we need to remember that that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Since the mission officially started in 2008, hundreds of people, including Podest, worked on the project from the time it was “only an idea, and watched it go from a design on paper to a physical reality.”

Launchpad
The Delta II rocket that'll take SMAP to space.

 

3. Because SMAP will measure soil moisture, it will be used to improve weather, flood and drought prediction. Global warming projections indicate a threefold increase in drought frequency in some areas of the globe, as well as more frequent precipitation events, increasing flood risks in other regions.​

storm

 

4. Since global warming has led to longer growing seasons in areas above the 45th parallel, which is halfway between the equator and the North Pole, SMAP data will tell us about freezing and thawing trends to give us more information about exactly how much and how fast the climate is changing in these locations.​

45th parallel
The 45th parallel latitude sign between Mammoth Hot Springs and Gardiner, Montana. Credit: Jo Suderman

 

5. The 20-foot (6-meter) diameter gold-plated SMAP antenna uses experimental, sky-breaking technology that took years of combined engineering experience and knowledge of what works in space to achieve it.​

SMAP antenna
SMAP's unfurled antenna in JPL's spacecraft assembly facility.

 

6. The solar panels on the instrument will open just hours after launch. Sixteen days after launch, the reflector/boom that supports the antenna will deploy in two steps. First the boom is deployed, which takes about 16 minutes. Then the antenna is deployed, which takes about 30 minutes to complete. It will spin at 14.6 revolutions per minute.​

SMAP diagram
A diagram showing SMAP's anatomy.

 

7. After the commissioning phase and data calibration/validation (about nine months after launch), all of the data will be freely available.

SMAP artist concept
Artist's concept of SMAP.

 

“The science team is calm and positive," said Susan Callery, Earth science public engagement manager, "There’s a confident vibe. The spacecraft is in good shape. Everything is checked and going well.”

To learn more about SMAP and follow the conversation, check these links:

http://smap.jpl.nasa.gov/

http://www.nasa.gov/smap/

http://smap.jpl.nasa.gov/blog/1208/

https://twitter.com/NASASMAP

https://www.facebook.com/NASA.SMAP

I look forward to your comments.

Laura

SMAP is part of NASA's Earth Right Now campaign, a series of five Earth science missions that will be launched into space in the same year, opening new and improved remote eyes to monitor our changing planet.

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January 26, 2015
15:22 PST
Pita bread! What was I thinking?

Pictured here is my edible SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive) model.

Every time I make one of these edible satellite models, I go through a crisis phase. I feel horror, worry, shame.

“This looks absolutely hideous!” I fret. “People who read this blog will think I’m nuts.” (Which I am, btw, just sayin'.) So far, my mini-meltdown around constructing the edible version of NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory was worse than the other four edible models I’ve made. I mean, just look at it! Pita bread? Really? What was I thinking? It took teams of engineers with decades of experience to design and build the new technology on SMAP, and I sat alone in my kitchen with a celery stalk.

SMAP is the final of five NASA Earth science satellites launched within a 12-month span. It uses a radar, which is active, and a radiometer, which is passive, to make its measurements, thus the name. But it’s the innovative rotating antenna on an extended boom that made both the actual and the edible instruments such a challenge to build.  

While NASA has many instruments with rotating antenna—RapidScat, for example, is an instrument that was deployed onto the International Space Station earlier this year—the SMAP antenna is unique and experimental. (I wanted to call it “ground”-breaking, but not when it’s on a rocket nose cone headed for space.) Its size makes it possible to achieve greater accuracy over a larger area than any other type of antenna. Plus—come on—once deployed, it will be a 20-foot (6-meter) gyroscope spinning in space, orbiting our Earth.

Yowsa! That’s just hella cah-ray-zy!

Oh yeah, and the antenna? It’s made of gold. That’s right, people, you heard me: gold. Can I hear you say “Bling”?

All right now, let's get back to the pita bread. This was, by far, the trickiest of the edible models to build, because the arm—made of celery—had to support the weight of the antenna—pita bread. My challenge was only a small “taste” of what the engineers who designed the instrument had to face. The actual SMAP antenna was built to function in the minimal gravity of space rather than the gravity on the ground, which meant there was a limited amount of testing done with the antenna opened.

As with the other edible models, building this one forced me to look closely at the design and, therefore, learn about the instrument. I encourage you to try it, too. The spacecraft bus is white cheddar; the solar array is thin crackers; the spun assembly is made of yam, cherry tomato and broccoli stalk; and the antenna feed horn is a parsnip.

SMAP diagram
Diagram of the actual SMAP satellite. Learn more about the different parts.

After I finished taking photos of my masterpiece, I ate it—all of it. And the cheese and crackers went really well with the glass of wine that eased me down from my crisis of shame.

Go ahead: Make your own NASA SMAP model, and share your photos in the comments section. You can learn more about the instrument here, here and here.

Also, check out my edible CATSGPM, OCO-2 and ISS-RapidScat models.

I look forward to your comments and creativity.

Laura

SMAP is part of NASA's Earth Right Now campaign, a series of five Earth science missions that will be launched into space in the same year, opening new and improved remote eyes to monitor our changing planet.

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