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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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May 21, 2015
14:35 PDT

Kevin John Hussey, Manager, Visualization Technology Applications and Development of NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory, accepts The Webby Award for Education & Reference in Mobile Sites & Apps. Credit: The Webby Awards
"This is maybe the only place where a guy from NASA gets a bigger crowd reaction than an actual rock star."
- Hannibal Buress

This past Monday, my coworkers and I were honored to attend the 19th Annual Webby Awards ceremony, where NASA's Global Climate Change website won in the ‘Websites: Green’ category, NASA's Earth Now mobile app won in the ‘Mobile Sites & Apps: Education & Reference’ category, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory won in the ‘Websites: Government’ category.

It was an extraordinarily entertaining evening, and all of us felt privileged to be a part of it. What stood out for me was host, actor and comedian Hannibal Buress’ closing remarks. After the Ice Bucket Challenge and the #LikeAGirl Campaign received their awards for ‘Special Achievement’ and ‘Advertising & Media: Viral Marketing,’ respectively, Buress reminded the audience of the power of the Internet to spread good in the world.

To all of you who are reading this now: You, too, are part of our team, part of our mission to spread the love of science and the wonderment of planet Earth.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for sharing. Watch one of our 5-word speeches.

Laura

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The sun is always shining on Joan Feynman

A solar filament eruption. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Solar Dynamics Observatory.

feynmans
Left: Joan Feynman. Right: Richard Feynman. Richard Feynman image courtesy of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.
“I knew the names of the planets in order before I went to kindergarten," Joan Feynman, the younger sister of the famous physicist, told me. "My father was delighted by science. My brother, of course, was Richard Feynman—gifted as hell. When I was about three or four, he taught me to add numbers. I’d add them and if I got them right, he’d give me a reward. The reward was allowing me to pull his hair. As soon as I pulled his hair he’d make a terrible face.”

Joan and I were supposed to be discussing her work on sunspots, aurora, geomagnetism and solar winds but we kept veering off on tangents, and I’m certain it was all my fault. I was charmed by her Long Island accent and wacky sense of humor, and the fact that at 88, she holds a research position at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

But Joan is much more than a little sister and a funny storyteller: She’s a legit solar physicist who spent a long career analyzing the patterns of sunspot frequencies and their relationship to aurora. You see, people who live meaningful lives look deeply at the world around them—deeply enough to be moved, and sometimes deeply enough to move others. So in one afternoon, she managed to transfer a bit of her passion to me. I became mesmerized, mind-blown and in awe of solar physics.

“People have been observing aurora and drawing pictures of them for thousands of years,” she explained. “We have records of them from the year 450 C.E. to 1450 C.E. The Swedes and Norwegians had made lists of what days there were aurora and the Chinese made lists. So they knew that when there was a big aurora in China, there was a big aurora in Sweden.”

Aurora over Yukon
An aurora shines over Whitehorse, Yukon. Image Courtesy of David Cartier, Sr.
Obviously I know that counting sunspot and aurora frequencies sounds completely dorky. But trust me, it feels like diving into a whole other reality when you spend time talking with Joan.

She went on to describe how “aurora, the geomagnetic currents and solar flares are part of the same process. Solar flares put out huge disturbances in the magnetic field of the solar wind and in the kind of particles that come out, and they cause the aurora.” Solar geomagnetic activity varies over 11-year and 88-year cycles. The 88-year Gleissberg cycle, a variation in amplitude of the 11-year solar cycle, is what’s captivated Joan throughout her career. “The whole point of science is to understand the mysteries you see around you,” she said. And solar activity has been part of that mystery for Joan her entire life.

Check out this story about the first time she saw an aurora as a very young child: “One night I had already gone to bed. I was supposed to stay in bed, but my brother got permission to come in and wake me up because there was an aurora in the sky over the golf course near our home in Long Island. It looked to me like marvelous lights in the sky moving back and forth. It was very impressive to me. My brother said to me that nobody knows what that’s from, which was true in 1930.”

“I was fascinated by that aurora,” she continued. “They’re gigantic, they’re impressive; everybody runs out to see them. They were mysteries. The sky is lit up red and gold and yellow and shooting.”

When I told her that I didn’t even know they had aurora in Long Island, she said, “Auroras come down to lower latitudes when they’re very big.”

Are you starting to see how I got all jacked up just listening to her? I’ve never even seen a real live aurora. It was like sitting next to a kid with a better toy. She was taunting me, describing colors, movement and wild sky. I was hooked and jealous.

I want to see one now!

Although today we understand that aurora are caused by the interaction between the Earth’s magnetosphere and the magnetic particles in the solar wind, there are still plenty of solar mysteries to keep Joan occupied. “How does the sun do that?” She wants to know. “How does the sun manage to get a cycle of 88 years?”

For me, the question is clear: “If there were lots of them in the 1930s, and there’s an 88-year cycle, does that mean I’m going to get to see them soon?”

She answered: “It’s time for me to write the next paper on this: Are they back?”

I look forward to your comments.

Laura

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May 12, 2015
12:37 PDT
Five words of fame

Our website NASA Global Climate Change won two Webby awards this year: The Webby Award (juried) and The People's Voice Award, both in the Green category. The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (IADAS), a 1,000+ member judging body, presents the Webbys, and next week a teammate and I will be heading to New York City to attend the awards ceremony.

Winners give a 5-word acceptance speech, and we’ve decided to ask our readers to help us come up with ideas.

Here are some possibilities so far:

  • Climate change: Science doesn’t lie
  • Green is the new black
  • Climate science, protect our planet
  • When you need data, NASA
  • Climate change: Believe the science
  • Get climate science facts here
  • Planet Earth? We're on it!

Go ahead: Make suggestions or vote for one of these in the comments thread, or feel free to share your ideas on Twitter using the official hashtag #5WordSpeech. We’ll post links to the speech next week.

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April 28, 2015
09:22 PDT
Rainbow of hope

A rainbow I saw over the weekend while walking out in the rain.

When you read this blog, you’re either going to say “no way” or “finally.” And honestly, I’m kind of saying both, but definitely leaning more toward the latter.

See, normally I’m weighed down by the epic crisis known as global climate change (ugh). But this morning, I’m thinking: "finally." At last, Earth’s climate is going to get the attention it deserves. Finally, enough people are showing they care and it’s going to make a difference. Finally.

True, it’s hard to believe—even for me. But deep in my bones, I feel the tide starting to turn. (And by using that expression, I do not mean higher tides are flooding low-lying regions. That’s been going on for a while.)

What I mean is that everywhere I turn I see people paying attention to Earth’s climate. Not enough attention yet, mind you, but at least people are talking about it. And for the first time in a long time, I feel hopeful.

Maybe this optimism has something to do with the rainbow I saw while walking out in the rain over the weekend. Maybe it’s because NASA’s Global Climate Change website won both the People’s Voice and the juried Webby Awards for Best Green Site, and our Earth Now mobile app won in the Education and Reference category.

Whatever it is, I hope you’ll join me in my moment of optimism, because together—you and me—we are responsible for making this planet the kind of world we want to live in.

Bring it.

Laura

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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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