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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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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.​

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.”

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.​



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:

I look forward to your comments.


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.


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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Last week NASA and NOAA announced that 2014 topped the list of hottest years ever recorded. Yikes!

What’s worse, the ten warmest years ever recorded have all occurred since 1998. Yikes again!

I fear this news story might turn into a blip that gets tons of attention and is then forgotten after a few days. But it's a topic that deserves sustained attention.

So let’s look back at those years and remember what was going on then. What were we focused on during those record-breaking years? What were we doing? I encourage you to think about what was happening in your life.

Here are some of the top news events from the 10 warmest years on record. Although I did not specifically look for environmental or climate-related events, often the most notable event of that year did have a climate connection:

1. 2014 - The People's Climate March

Climate March
Source: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
During the hottest year ever recorded, people took to the streets to demand action on climate change. Sure, there were many other stories that grabbed headlines in 2014 (like the Ebola outbreak), but I’ve decided to highlight this one because it stood out to me as a turning point in the global discussion. The People’s Climate March, based in New York City on Sept 21, 2014, was the largest climate change march in history and spread to over 150 countries.

2. 2010 - The Gulf of Mexico oil spill

Oil spill
Multiple cameras on JPL's MISR instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft were used to create two unique views of oil moving into Louisiana's coastal wetlands. Credit: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL, MISR Team
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill began on April 20, 2010. It lasted 87 days and spewed about 260 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean, making it the worst marine oil spill in history. Eleven people and countless marine animals were killed.

3. 2005 - Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina, as seen from NASA's GOES mission. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio
Hurricane Katrina formed in the Bahamas on August 23, 2005 and made landfall on August 29, causing flooding and severe destruction along the Gulf Coast. New Orleans, Louisiana, was especially hit hard when levee failure caused over 80 percent of the city to become inundated.

4. 1998 - A massive El Niño

El Niño
El Niño of January 1998. Source: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory
A massive El Niño occurred in the winter of 1997-1998, causing extremely wet and warm conditions across the southern third of the U.S. and extremely dry conditions in Indonesia and Australia. Severe weather events occurred across the globe, including intense rain and flooding in California and tornadoes in Florida.

5. 2013 - Super Typhoon Haiyan

Typhoon Haiyan
Super Typhoon Haiyan at peak intensity and making landfall over the islands of Samar and Leyte in the Philippines. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Super Typhoon Haiyan, in November 2013, was the strongest typhoon ever recorded. It caused catastrophic destruction and devastation across Southeast Asia, especially in the Philippines.

6. 2003 - U.S. invasion into Iraq

Oil fires in Iraq
Dust storm blowing in from the northwest over Iraq, captured April 5, 2003 by the Aqua satellite. Credit: NASA's Earth Observatory
The U.S. invasion into Iraq began on March 16, 2003 and dominated the news that year.

7. 2002 - Larsen B Ice Shelf shatters

Larsen B Ice Shelf
The northern section of the Larsen B ice shelf, a large floating ice mass on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, before it shattered and separated from the continent. The image was taken March 5, 2002 by the Terra satellite. Credit: NASA's Earth Observatory/National Snow and Ice Data Center
Between January 31 and April 13, 2002, nearly all of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in the Antarctic Peninsula disintegrated and collapsed. The ice shelf had been stable since the Holocene, but warmer ocean currents around Antarctica caused the 1,250-square-mile shelf to melt and break into the sea.

8. 2006 - Twitter launches

Mars Science Laboratory tweetup
Artist concept of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover with an illustrated astronaut bird. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The social networking website Twitter was launched in July 2006. It presently has about half a billion users, including NASA satellites and rovers.

9. 2009 - The United Nations Climate Change Conference

Copenhagen from space
Copenhagen, Denmark, as seen from space. Credit: NASA Worldview
The 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference was held in Copenhagen December 7-18, 2009. The goal of the conference was to negotiate a deal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and hold the temperature increase to less than 2 degrees Celsius, but participating nations failed to reach an agreement.

10. 2007 - First iPhone release

Earth Now app
NASA's 'Earth Now' app. Download for free here or here.
The first generation iPhone was released in the U.S. on June 29, 2007.


The point of this exercise is to say that we have to look at global warming as more than a bunch of numbers and dates on a page. The 10 warmest years have happened so recently that we can easily remember what was going on then. Even the 19- and 20-year-old college students I teach are old enough to remember what was happening and where they were in every one of those years.

Wow, is your mind as boggled as mine is? Share your thought in the comments. I look forward to reading them.


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January 13, 2015
16:11 PST

The Wonderkids show their enthusiasm for learning about climate change. Credit: Paige Handley

“Climate change! Climate change! Climate change!”

The kids of the Wonderkids after school science program were chanting and pounding the tables as I walked in the room. “Wow,” I thought. “If only more adults were this interested in climate change.”

Paige Handley and Sherry Chan, coordinators of the 32nd street Elementary school University of Southern California (USC) ReadersPlus Program, had just introduced me by asking the group if they remembered what the speaker (me) was going to talk about today. That’s when the chanting and pounding broke out. Obviously they more than remembered—they were bursting, eager, raring to go.

Laura with kids
Laura and the kids doing some hands-on science learning. Credit: Paige Handley
I’d always hesitated to give my climate change speech to kids, worried they’d be ill-mannered or wouldn’t pay attention. I was afraid of not being able to control the room. But I was wrong. These kids were awesome: They were super keen, attentive and totally eager. They gave me hope for the future, for all of our futures.

I spoke for a few minutes, showing them images of NASA’s Earth science satellites and the rockets that launch them into space. I told them the satellites are space robots. (Hey, it’s true. A satellite is a robot in space. Also, I like the idea of a “space robot.”) Then we talked about the data that NASA’s instruments collect. After that, the group performed three Earth science demonstrations together, because science education works best when it’s hands-on.

Kid concentrating
Desiree Godinez concentrates on the demonstration of water's unusually high surface tension. Credit: Paige Handley
I watched as they focused intently on the tasks in front of them: naturally curious and undeterred, like mini professional research scientists. They tenaciously and persistently repeated their experiments without any coaxing from the adults. They cooperated, taking turns and giving each other advice.

I looked over at one of the teacher helpers, smiled and said, “We’re just going to stand here and let them go at it for as long as they want.”

Working in climate science can make me feel down sometimes, because I’m concerned about the impact that we, as a species, are making on our environment. I know much of that impact isn’t going to occur during my lifetime, but will be passed forward to future generations, including this generation in front of me today. But unlike us older people, these elementary school kids will grow up knowing about climate change. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance they’ll be the ones who have the courage, the know-how and the determination to deal with it.

As always, I look forward to your comments.


Wonderkids, a University of Southern California (USC) Joint Educational Project (JEP) program hosted by ReadersPlus, is a first-to-third grade after-school science program in the USC Family of Schools. It is currently in six schools: Foshay, Weemes, Vermont, Norwood, Mack, Norwood and 32nd street. The program focuses on different areas of science through hands-on lesson plans and books. The program also has professional scientists from different science fields as rotating speakers coming into the classroom to encourage students to pursue careers in STEM.

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January 7, 2015
posted by Susan Callery
07:05 PST
Palm oil: A climate change culprit

Pictured here is a forest area being cleared for a palm oil plantation. Deforestation destroys wildlife habitats and adds massive amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. (Photo by Ian Singleton)

Susan Callery
Susan Callery is the manager of Earth Science Public Engagement at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and secretary/treasurer of the Orang Utan Republik Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to saving the orangutans of Indonesia.

I always wanted to see orangutans in the wild, having learned that they are probably the most intelligent of all the great apes because of their ability to innovate and problem-solve. In 2007, I finally scraped together the funds to travel to Borneo—little did I know that at the age of 53, I would find my passion.

On my trip, I observed more incredible wildlife and natural beauty than I can possibly describe. I also saw acre after acre of once-pristine rainforests that had been transformed into barren moonscapes; rivers devoid of life and polluted by palm oil effluent and heavy metals; orphaned baby orangutans whose mothers were killed in palm oil plantations as agricultural pests. I learned that the forest home of many of these magical creatures is disappearing rapidly and suffering from the impacts of slash-and-burn agriculture.

Tracking forest changes from space

What is palm oil, what does it have to do with climate change and what does it have to do with NASA?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil from the fruit of the West African oil palm tree. It is used for biofuel, cosmetics, snack foods, ice cream, lotion and soap, and is in about half of all products on store shelves. The oil palm tree is grown in tropical regions (mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia, but now spreading all over the tropics, including Africa), and rain forests are being  cleared to make room for more of this crop. Since rain forests are the largest carbon sinks, when destroyed they release massive amounts of carbon dioxide. Deforestation is the second largest manmade source of atmospheric carbon dioxide, after fossil fuel burning.

NASA satellites make it possible for scientists to monitor changes in rainforest landscapes around the world and to collect images of areas that are actively burning (here and here). In addition, the AIRS instrument on the Aqua satellite can keep an eye on the carbon monoxide produced from these fires. These satellites and instruments are part of a fleet of 18 Earth-observing satellites that are monitoring our home planet 24/7. 

For more information, visit

Images of my Jakarta journey

The following is an album, in words and images, of my life-changing visit to Indonesia.

Burning peat forest
Smoldering embers of a burned rain forest area. (Photo by Ian Singleton)
I was greeted by a choking haze as the plane landed in Jakarta. Soon, my eyes began to sting, my throat became scratchy and the smell of fire penetrated my clothes and hair. After inquiring about the cause, I was shocked to learn that this was the result of illegal fires that were deliberately set to clear forests for palm oil plantations. Of course, I had never heard of palm oil.

A "klotok" travels the Sekonyer River. (Photo by Susan Callery)

Traveling to Tanjung Puting National Park in Borneo required two more flights and a slow trip on a funny wooden boat called a "klotok." I soon forgot about the palm oil and poor air quality in Jakarta (or so I thought) and enjoyed the natural beauty of the forest along the pristine black water Sekonyer River.

Mom and baby proboscis monkeys
Mom and baby proboscis monkeys. (Photo by Susan Callery)
The banks came alive with colorful birds, macaques and proboscis monkeys, with their large protruding noses, potbellies and magnificent red-brown fur, leaping effortlessly from tree to tree. I was heartbroken to learn that these spectacular monkeys are vanishing rapidly because their habitat is disappearing.

Polluted river (Photo by Susan Callery)
River pollution. (Photo by Susan Callery)
Soon we arrived at a “Y” in the river, and I noticed a sharp divide between the black water and murky brown water that reminded me of coffee with cream. Our guide told me that the pollution was due to chemical runoff from logging, mining and palm oil plantations upstream. There was that name again: "palm oil."

When we arrived at the dock of Camp Leakey, Siswi, one of the resident orangutans, greeted us. She and several other orangutans ran to hold hands with Dr. Birute Galdikas, who established the camp back in 1971. Siswi was a bit of a troublemaker, immediately getting into a guest’s backpack and breaking into the lunchroom. I was fascinated to watch her mix herself a drink (non-alcoholic) and show her affection by holding our hands and ankles. I quickly fell in love with these creatures, who appear so different physically from us but have many human characteristics.

On the trip, I also visited the Orangutan Care Center, where locals bring confiscated, sick, injured and orphaned orangutans for veterinary care. Soon after I arrived, a baby came in, and I couldn’t help but ask what happened. I was told that many orphans are “palm oil orphans” whose forest habitats were destroyed—and parents killed—by the swiftly spreading palm oil industry in Indonesia. 

Siswi and operation room
Left: Siswi greets us at the dock of Camp Leakey. Right: An operating room at the Orangutan Care Center. (Photos by Susan Callery)

I returned home, determined to do something about palm oil, and enrolled in graduate school in environmental policy and management. I joined the board of a local non-profit organization dedicated to protecting orangutans in the wild. As an Non-Governmental Organization, we joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which promotes palm oil production practices that help reduce deforestation, preserve biodiversity, respect the livelihoods of rural communities and ensures that no new primary forest or other high conservation value areas are sacrificed for palm oil plantations.

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December 19, 2014
08:47 PST
Coming soon: CATS in space

Kyle Guzek works on CATS during testing in the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

As you know, the Internet was created so people could watch cat videos. And now felines are aiming to pounce right into the middle of some NASA space action, too. Well, sort of.

“CATS” stands for “Cloud-Aerosol Transport System” and is the next NASA Earth science mission slated to launch aboard an uncrewed SpaceX Dragon spacecraft headed for the International Space Station, where it will be mounted on the Japanese Experiment Module-Exposed Facility (JEM-EF) to measure pollution, dust and smoke in the atmosphere.

Kyle Guzek was part of the design team that worked on the instrument, which is scheduled to launch Jan. 6. A sophomore studying mechanical engineering at Howard Community College in Columbia, Md., Guzek began working on CATS as a junior mechanical draftsman while he was still in high school. He participated in the thermal testing of the instrument in the Applied Physics Laboratory.

“When we started on CATS,” he told me “there were design problems, and we had to keep working until we found design solutions.” Through the process, Kyle said, he learned not to dwell on challenges and problems and to move toward solutions to those problems.

Guzek will be watching CATS launch at a viewing party at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “I’m probably going to jump for joy, and cry. No, I won’t cry, but I’ll be jumping for joy.”

Find out more about CATS here and here.

I look forward to your comments.


The CATS instrument was developed and built at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and 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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December 8, 2014
15:49 PST
COP-20: It's all about momentum

One if the two main areas where countries discussed key topics for the day at COP-20 in Lima, Peru.

Michelle Gierach, a JPL oceanographer, answered my Skype call while she was walking with her computer. She leaned over and whispered, “I’m trying to find a quiet place to talk.” Gierach was in Lima, Peru, representing NASA at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 20th Conference of Parties (COP-20), which runs December 1-12.

As she swung her computer around, I could see she was in a massive, white, tent-like structure. There were lots of people, and it was pretty loud. “Where are you?” I asked.

Michelle G
Michelle Gierach, oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

She had come to the U.N. climate conference to speak to international delegates from 195 countries about how climate change affects El Niño. I’d expected her to Skype with me from her hotel room for the interview, but instead, she was at the U.S. Center, which was a sectioned off area inside a massive hangar that held representatives from all the countries. To hide from the noise, she’d ducked behind the NASA hyperwall, a screen of nine linked computer monitors displaying stunning data visualizations.

“That’s hilarious,” I giggled as I asked her to swing her computer around, slowly this time, so I could see what was going on. I called out “Hi from California!” to a group of U.S. delegates, and they waved back at me from Peru.

The point of this year’s U.N. meeting is to draft clear, concise negotiating text to set the stage for next year’s meeting, taking place December 2015 in Paris, where countries are expected to agree on actions to address climate change.

“Just walking around, what I gauge from talking to people in the U.S. Center is excitement that we’re all here," Gierach told me. "But the real excitement will come next year. This is about keeping the momentum going."

All of these people at COP-20 are meeting to make sure everyone is on the same track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. “But the ocean’s role within these two degrees of warming is key and must to be factored into the equation,” she said. Earth’s oceans have absorbed a lot of heat, and a better understanding of El Niño will improve scientists' ability to forecast complex climate phenomena.

Any of the delegates can watch the science talks on the NASA hyperwall, where Gierach explains how she uses NASA satellite observations to look at how El Niño affects people on local, regional and global scales. She’s in the U.S. Center all day, busting her butt to tell NASA’s story to the climate community. Data animations on the hyperwall, such as a visualization of sea surface temperatures during the giant El Niño of 1997-98 (shown below) provide beautiful eye candy that have helped draw a steady stream of viewers eager to watch and learn.

“I think it’s so cool to be surrounded by people who acknowledge that there is climate change and who actually care. Everybody here sees that there’s a problem and wants to do something about it. It’s so cool to be a part of that,” she said. And then, “Oh, I have to go right now! The next hyperwall talk is about to start!” And then she hung up on me.

“You go gurl,” I thought.

You can watch Gierach's COP-20 presentation here, and you can find more information about the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change here.

As always, I look forward to your comments.


Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly during the the 1997-1998 ENSO event. Credit: NASA

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November 21, 2014
07:21 PST
This Thanksgiving food model is the CATS meow

Pictured here is my edible CATS model that resembles the real instrument headed for the International Space Station (ISS).

Thanksgiving is all about celebrating traditions. In this big year for Earth science at NASA, we started celebrating our own new tradition by creating an edible satellite model for each of the five new missions being launched this year. Cloud-Aerosol Transport System, or CATS, is the next Earth science mission slated to launch aboard an uncrewed SpaceX Dragon spacecraft on December 16. CATS is a lidar instrument that will measure clouds, pollution, dust, smoke and other particulates in the atmosphere. A “lidar” measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light. The instrument will be mounted on the International Space Station’s Japanese Experiment Module-Exposed Facility (JEM-EF).

In the Thanksgiving spirit, I made an edible CATS model out of the best ingredients of a Thanksgiving feast: the desserts! The instrument’s body is pumpkin pie filling made of pumpkin purée, the two high repetition rate lasers are walnuts, the telescope is made of apples and chocolate and the mounting feet that hold the payload to the launch vehicle are also made of chocolate. As with all the other edible models I’ve made, my family actually ate everything, and no food was wasted.

It's a cat eat CATS world
It’s a cat eat CATS world! Our cat Lucy decides to jump up and take a nibble.

This Thanksgiving, I'm thankful that more and more of you care so much about this amazing planet we share.

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

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

I look forward to your comments and creativity.


The CATS instrument was developed and built at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and 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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What’s the deal with Antarctica and the Arctic?

This beautiful aerial photograph shows a multi-layered lenticular cloud hovering near Mount Discovery in Antarctica, a volcano about 70 kilometers (44 miles) southwest of McMurdo. Credit: Michael Studinger, Operation IceBridge. Download larger image.

Most people I meet don’t spend much time thinking about the polar regions on planet Earth; the poles just seem too far away. I mean, Antarctica, really? Only extreme explorers and a few scientists spend time thinking about those frozen places. Most of us live in areas with moderate temperatures, fantasize about tropical vacations and have barely checked out what the far reaches of our planet look like on a map. And even maps neglect the far north and south by stretching them so much that many people have no real idea what the ends of the Earth look like.

I became interested, and then obsessed, with Earth’s icy regions during a particularly hot Los Angeles summer a couple of years ago when I created NASA’s Global Ice Viewer. Sitting in my office scouring NASA vaults for the most intriguing views of our planet’s ice was like going on a wild interstellar journey to someplace beyond my wildest imagination; it changed my view of our planet forever.

These days, I frequently give public speeches and show audiences what the Arctic and Antarctic look like from space. It surprises me how little people know about these portions of our world. Perhaps their biggest misunderstanding is that the Arctic and Antarctic are similar. You know, one’s in the north and the other is in the south; but other than that, they’re the same, right? No, this couldn’t be more wrong. These polar opposites are literally polar opposites.

For starters, the Arctic is a small, shallow ocean surrounded by land: Eurasia, Greenland, Canada and the United States. It’s only about 5 ½ million square miles, which is five times smaller than the Atlantic and 11 times smaller than the Pacific. Antarctica, on the other hand, is a continent surrounded by the entire Southern Ocean.


Antarctica and the Arctic
This year, Antarctic sea ice reached a record maximum extent while the Arctic reached a minimum extent in the top ten lowest since satellite records began. One reason we are seeing differences between the Arctic and the Antarctic is due to their different geographies. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center


This may seem like no big deal, but it makes all the difference in the world. It takes a lot of energy to change water temperature compared to what it takes to change land temperature, which means Arctic seawater isn’t as cold as the continental ice sheet covering Antarctica. So, the Arctic sea ice (frozen sea water) is about 10 feet thick, whereas the Antarctic ice sheet (compacted freshwater ice) is over a mile thick.

In the winter, the Southern Ocean around the Antarctic continent also becomes covered with sea ice. But every summer most of this sea ice melts. That’s because the ice edge around Antarctica is exposed to open ocean, and every direction you go is north. So, during the summer, the sea ice moves north and melts away. This means that very little Antarctic sea ice is more than two years old. But Arctic sea ice is trapped inside the landlocked ocean. This means that during the summer months, even though much of the sea ice melts, it doesn’t melt completely.

More than opposites

Is this complicated enough? Consider one more comparison: The amount of Arctic sea ice is way down, while the amount of Southern Ocean sea ice is up by a tiny bit. If you’ve been reading closely, by now you’ll know that those two types of sea ice are probably super duper different because, yup, you guessed it: The two poles are much more than opposites.

Since 1979, NASA satellite measurements have observed an overall decline in Arctic sea ice due to climate change. Climate change warms the ocean water and melts the sea ice. Climate change has also caused some of the Antarctic ice shelves (which are part of Antarctica’s fresh water ice sheet that extends into the ocean, surrounding the continent) to collapse.

But the story of the sea ice floating around Antarctica in the Southern Ocean is even more complex. This sea ice is not just frozen seawater, like the Arctic sea ice. There’s more snow in the Southern Ocean — that ice is made of sea ice, covered by snow ice (frozen snow), covered by snow. It’s a snowman ice cream sandwich! And the strong winds down there easily blow this mixture across an expanding area.

The fact that our Earth is a crazy complicated place makes it difficult to understand, but that same truth also makes it amazing. Earth is never boring, which is why we keep paying attention to and never tire of learning more about it.

Test how much you know and learn more about Earth’s frozen places with these fun quizzes:

As always, I welcome your comments.


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October 15, 2014
12:23 PDT
Looking at clouds from both sides

Pictured here are rare clouds, technically called "noctilucent" or "polar mesospheric" clouds, spotted over Billund, Denmark on July 15, 2010. Credit: Jan Erik Paulsen. View and download large image.

Anyone passing by must have thought I was a bit nutty standing in the road and gazing into the sky on a Tuesday afternoon, but it was all for science. That’s right: citizen science.

A “citizen scientist” is a member of the public who makes careful field observations and contributes data toward professional scientific research. Wanna try it? You can. NASA is inviting everyone to participate in a citizen science project, called “#SkyScience,” for Earth Science Week 2014, October 12-18. Earth Science Week is an international event organized by the American Geosciences Institute to help people better understand and appreciate the Earth sciences and to encourage stewardship of our planet.

So I was standing in the road doing #SkyScience, observing all the clouds in the sky—both the ones overhead and the ones off in the distance.

You can do citizen science and help NASA scientists by joining the #SkyScience program. You have to look up at clouds at the same moment a NASA satellite is looking down. 

When you first visit the SkyScience S’COOL website, you might think it’s predominantly for kids but, trust me, you should check it out. It’s interesting and fun, and you’ll likely learn something, no matter your age.

When you’re at the website, the first thing you have to do is find your satellite overpass time; that way, you can schedule your cloud observation. This involves clicking on a map that gives you your latitude and longitude coordinates and inputting the dates you want to make your observations. The website will then generate the satellite overpass schedule, which you will receive via email a few seconds later. I’ve never known my exact lat/long coordinates, so I was somewhat psyched by this part of the process.

Getting my head in the clouds

To be honest, the citizen science projects I’d participated in before had imprecise data collection processes, and I’d doubted the accuracy of the untrained citizens’ measurements. In this case, even the first step was so well organized that it seemed practically impossible to get erroneous timing.

The next step is to go outside within a 30-minute window and observe the clouds. “Aha! That’s where the untrained bad measurements come in,” you might say. And I say back to you, “Don’t be so quick to critique.” Here’s the deal: I’ve looked at cloud charts many times, but this time was different. This time I had to look at actual clouds in the actual sky and identify those specific clouds. I had to interact with a chart, which forced me to understand it. It forced my mind to see the clouds in a different way; it forced me to learn.

The cloud reporting documents were thorough enough to weed out any shirkers who thought they might get away with shoddy cloud observations, although documenting the observations and submitting them online took about half an hour and were easy to do.

NASA announced #SkyScience on October 1, and since then we’ve received about 2,500 overpass requests and more than 360 submitted cloud observations, and we’re hoping for more.

I spoke with Lin Chambers, S'COOL project director, to make sure the submitted #SkyScience observations and photos don’t end up in the back corner of a file cabinet somewhere.

She’s hoping to get observations from places that have snow on the ground. “Even a four-year-old on the ground has no problem telling the difference between snow on the ground and clouds in the sky, but for a NASA satellite doing remote sensing, that’s one of the biggest challenges.”

Chambers explained that she and her team are looking for ways to make the satellite measurements as accurate as possible. “When you’re on the ground looking up, you have a uniform blue sky to detect against, but when you’re in space, you’re looking down at the surface, which has all sorts of variability.”

As long as you observe the sky within 15 minutes of the satellite overpass, you’ll get an email within about five days that matches your observation with the satellite’s. You can find a record of your observations, along with all the other ground observations, and compare the clouds you saw with the corresponding satellite data. At that point you’ll have seen the same clouds from both sides: from the bottom and from the top.

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