July 28, 2010, 17:00 PDT

Pick of the pics

Warm and fuzzy

Credit: This sea surface temperature image was created at the University of Miami using the 11- and 12-micron bands, by Bob Evans, Peter Minnett, and co-workers.

Credit: This sea surface temperature image was created at the University of Miami using the 11- and 12-micron bands, by Bob Evans, Peter Minnett, and co-workers.

This image, derived from infrared measurements made by NASA’s Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on May 8, 2000, shows the Gulf Stream in all its glory. Cold water is shown in purple, with blue, green, yellow and red representing progressively warmer water. Temperatures range from about 7 to 22 degrees Celsius (45 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit).

The Gulf Stream is one of the strongest ocean currents on Earth and carries warm water from the sunny tropics to higher latitudes. It stretches from the Gulf of Mexico up the East Coast of the United States, departs from North America south of the Chesapeake Bay, and heads across the Atlantic to the British Isles. The water within the Gulf Stream moves at the stately pace of 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) per hour. Even though the current cools as the water travels thousands of miles, it remains strong enough to moderate the Northern European climate.

Caption adapted, and image taken, from NASA’s Visible Earth gallery. Larger image available here.

July 21, 2010, 17:00 PDT

Pick of the pics

Adrift at sea

Image and caption courtesy of the Landsat, which is managed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Image and caption courtesy of the Landsat mission, which is managed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey.

This pic of Attu Island, in the Western Aleutian Islands, was taken by the Landsat-7 satellite on July 27, 2000. As the westernmost point in North America, Attu is a rugged island dominated by snow-covered mountains. It is 20 by 35 miles in size (32 by 56 kilometers) and lies at the far western end of the Aleutian chain, approximately 1100 miles (1770 kilometers) from the Alaskan mainland and 250 miles (402 kilometers) from the Siberian coastline. The weather is characterized by persistently overcast skies, fog, high winds and frequent cyclonic storms.

The Japanese invaded and occupied Attu in June 1942. Today, the island is home to a U.S. Coastguard station and is a sanctuary to many of North America's rarest birds.

July 20, 2010, 17:00 PDT

Second life?

Check your hair

Matt Rogers

From Dr. Matt Rogers, Colorado State University

As you might expect from watching movies, few scientists put a lot of effort into being fashionable, which is why I found it odd to have spent a good thirty minutes last Thursday doing my hair. Not in the real world, mind you — I was preparing to give a science talk to fourteen under-privileged students at the Miami Science Museum, while I was sitting comfortably behind my computer in Colorado. We were all to meet in the virtual online world of Second Life, which describes itself as the "internet's largest user-created, 3D virtual-world community." We gathered on a NASA in-game island that has been custom built for the purpose of bringing students, teachers and the public together with scientists. In this virtual world, appearance is everything.

Matt and his second life. He gets ready to give his talk on NASA's CloudSat mission to a group of students.
Matt and his second life. He gets ready to give his talk on NASA's CloudSat mission to a group of students.

My presentation would be through a computer-generated avatar, using my voice via microphone, and talking to a virtual roomful of student-created avatars. The presentation would be much like a real one — I had slides to present data, there was a question-and-answer period after the talk, and I would even be on a stage, with a computer-generated NASA podium in front of me. And in execution, it was brilliant; the talk went smoothly, and the virtual world was a fitting environment to present my data. More intriguing, however, was the question-and-answer period afterward. Typically, when I present to a teenaged audience, I'll get a few specific questions, and will end up spending most of my time speaking with one or two students who are really into the material, while the rest of the room looks at the floor and waits for time to be up.

2nd life 2

This time it was different, as student after student came forward with their questions. The student avatars were much fancier than mine — they'd obviously spent much more time on their hair than I did — and the questions covered a much broader range of topics, from cloud lifetimes, to pollution, to how to get into science as a career. As I spoke with the student avatars, it occurred to me that the virtual world has some real advantages over the real one. In the real world, I think that students are often afraid to step to the microphone and ask a question — peer pressure to 'fit in' can often overpower the desire to learn more about a topic. In the virtual world, however, you're free to be whomever you want to be, dress how you want to dress, and ask any question you choose to ask. Free from any constraints, these students were getting answers to questions they'd always wanted to ask, but never could. In the virtual world, without our real-world insecurities, the transfer of knowledge is unimpeded by social convention, and students and scientists can converse as equals, or even as friends.

A student asks Matt a question in Second Life.
A student asks Matt a question in Second Life.

It was a wonderful experience, and the Miami Science Museum has hit on a winning formula that will foster real science education across socioeconomic boundaries. I hope to be back again sometime, but next time, I'll make sure to spend more time getting my hair just right.

Matt has a Ph.D. in atmospheric science and works in Colorado as Outreach Science Liaison for NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s CloudSat mission.

July 18, 2010, 17:00 PDT


It’s just JPL

Today we post dispatches from three of our summer students who recently arrived at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). This one is from Holly Shaftel, who is working with our Global Climate Change website team here at JPL.

Holly and her dog, Peanuts.
Holly and her dog, Peanuts.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is considered a big kahuna of Earth and Space science, and just like any outsider entering this eminent world, I expected my every move to be monitored like a psychology patient during a sleep study … not really, but you get the idea.

My main fear before orientation was security, because the tighter the security, the more I feel like a prisoner. But upon entering the facility I found myself completely baffled: I expected Smithsonianesque metal detectors and Disneyland-like bag checks, but instead I required only a driver’s license JUST to prove it wasn’t expired. Not only that, the guards actually had engaging personalities, instead of carrying a robotically authoritarian air like a Buckingham Palace guard or Yeoman Warder. It was then that I realized JPL was far from the stereotypical uptight, East-Coast government-owned institution.

I’m on my third week at JPL, and I must say the atmosphere is so relaxing that I feel as if I could work on my laptop in a lawn chair every day alongside a small herd of visiting deer (in case you didn’t know, even the wildlife here seem to be animal manifestations of Snoop Dawg), as I enjoy a (virgin) appletini and marinate under southern California sun rays. And, on another note, the term “dress code” seems to be a thing of the past here — basically, if one is wearing at LEAST a badge then they’re ready for action.

But really, this place has a big campus setting with a quaint, small town charm. Meeting an employee with a mean bone in his/her body is like trying to locate a missing earring stud in a sandbox, which makes the JPL experience all the more satisfying and blithe.

Holly starts at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona this autumn as a Communications major. She hopes to work in government or for a non-profit organization and is interested in animal and environmental issues. Her hobbies include target shooting with her Dad and modeling in photo shoots.

July 18, 2010, 17:00 PDT

Blue paper badge

First impressions

Today we post dispatches from three of our summer students who recently arrived at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). This one is from Patricia Song, who is working with the CloudSat mission team here at JPL.

Patricia is working on JPL's CloudSat mission

“You have to show your picture ID.”

Words I’ve heard more than eight times in the four days I’ve been here at NASA JPL. I pull up to the guard and automatically flash my California Driver’s License and the blue ‘new hire’ paper badge, having readied my license in my cup holder since I left home. The guard glances twice to read my name and check my face before letting me through. I’ve gotten lost once on Tuesday so today I turn right, the path to the lab’s West Parking Lot embedded in my mind this time.

Work is different than what I thought. As a summer student, I finally get to see what JPL is all about. It is not an uptight, strict-rules, sophisticated-machinery type of place — at least, not all of it is.

There is a college campus feel to the lab (it probably has to do with the fact that it is established by Caltech) and most people that I’ve met seem laid back when they are not focused on working on whatever project they are working on. The scientists are friendly and enjoy talking about their work — they bombard me with facts about lidar (“light detection and ranging”) on one of my first days, for example. One of the highlights so far has been listening to explanations of how things up in space work and how those things in space send information back to us on Earth.

It can be intimidating at first, being at a NASA lab, but the employees are friendly, patient and helping me to settle in. This is a place of neverending curiosity, and as long as that remains true, this will be a place of neverending answers.

So here is my start at JPL. My very first real paid job — not volunteer work for once — and it is at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that everyone who lives in the San Gabriel Valley knows about! It has only been a few days and it already feels like I have learned more than I would learn in high school in the same amount of time. I have feeling it will be an interesting and very educational experience. Hopefully by the next time I post my article, I won’t have to show a picture ID with my paper blue badge — I’d have a real one.

Patricia is an incoming freshman at UCSD and has just arrived at JPL as a summer student. She intends to double major in Environmental Science and Communications or Ethnic Studies, and in her spare time listens to music and builds lego.

July 18, 2010, 17:00 PDT

The intimidation factor

Hello, Earthling

Nick Derian

Today we post dispatches from three of our summer students who recently arrived at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). This one is from Nicholas Derian, who is working with our Global Climate Change website team here at JPL.

The morning air was brisk, my knees were shaky, and my forehead began to sweat. I was all dappered up, thinking that the slightest indication that I was not taking the opportunity to work for NASA seriously would result in the boot.


I turned up to work at JPL with the preconceived notion that it would be full of socially awkward scientists testing lab rats, shooting satellites to Mars, and eating lunch while discussing the alignment of the axis of Saturn’s third moon. JPL was bound to be full of highly-strung people who ignore all contact with human life forms, right? Well, after the first week or so passed by, I started to notice a comforting aura of unity. My urge to run to the bathroom to sob evaporated, and I could finally make conversation with people who carried clipboards and wore badges of authority. I began to learn that not all of JPL is about exploring the solar system, but that a good portion of the lab’s work revolves around studying a planet that is supremely unusual and spectacular — the one we call Planet Earth. While Earth’s oceans, air, land and ecosystems all seem to be individual systems, they neatly slot together to make up this place we call home. I’ve had a pretty darn good time finding that out so far.

And the jitters have gone.

Nicholas is about to start at UCLA having transferred from Glendale Community College in Glendale, California, and has been a student intern at JPL since February. He intends to major in Sociology with an emphasis in business marketing.

July 7, 2010, 17:00 PDT

Pick of the pics

Orbital sunrise

Pick of the pics

This beautiful-yet-bizarro astronaut photograph shows polar mesospheric clouds, a.k.a. “night-shining” clouds, illuminated by the rising sun. It was taken from the International Space Station on June 16, 2010. Usually night-shining clouds are seen at twilight, and are lit up by the setting sun when the sun sets below the horizon and the Earth’s surface gets dark. Occasionally, however, the space station’s high-altitude orbital track becomes nearly parallel to the Earth’s day/night terminator or “twilight zone” (the line that separates day and night). When this happens, night-shining clouds can become visible to the crew at times other than the usual twilight. This picture is the result.

See here to learn more about night-shining clouds.

Image taken and caption adapted from NASA’s Earth Observatory.