August 23, 2010, 17:00 PDT

It's not all rocket science

Behind the scenes at JPL

A view overlooking the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

A view overlooking the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Patricia Song

The latest dispatch from Patricia Song, a summer student who is working with the CloudSat mission team here at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

What comes to mind when someone tells you that they work at JPL? Scientist. Engineer. Numbers. People in white lab coats working in shiny, clean rooms with complicated silvery metal contraptions.

At least, that is what I pictured whenever I looked at the picture of Albert Einstein on the wall of my fifth grade classroom.

However, as my stay here at JPL grows longer and I meet more and more people, I realize that those who work at JPL are not all scientists, engineers, and number crunchers. There are also many different, incredible people who work behind the scenes. They are the ones who help streamline the processes that the scientists and engineers have to go through in order to accomplish their goals.

Every day, all employees need to go past the security gates staffed by kind but observant officers — yes, JPL has its own police department and fire department. After passing through the gates and taking that very long walk through the parking lot and finally onto the lab, we see all the people who work on sweeping the leaves off the ground, cleaning what mess the deer leave behind, and making sure the landscaping of the lab is primped nicely. I walk past all of them and finally reach my building. If it is a Tuesday, I can usually find the custodian collecting recyclables around the floor.

Although I bring my own lunches, I can’t exclude the people who work at the cafeterias. As I mentioned before (or not if you have not read my previous entries), JPL has a very ‘college campus-y’ feeling to it and the cafeterias are no exception. There are lunch cards that hold credit and a sort of makeyourown fruit cup/salad/lunch thing going on. The workers there take your money, provide services, cook and clean — anything that is needed to run a cafeteria.

There are the transportation and shipping people. There are those who help move papers and furniture around when someone moves to a new office. There are those who carry flight hardware into the clean rooms where engineers can use them to build new instruments. There are also the shipping people who help mail out and receive packages that need to go to and from the lab.

And of course, there are the people who deal with all the money issues at JPL. There is a whole section of them (in fact, most of the other interns I know and those I have met during lunch outside are people who are working on the money side of things). So even if the lab looks like it's all science, there are dollars that need to be accounted for. A few of the people I spoke to are involved in looking at past projects and making sure that all the calculations involving money are correct.

Even with so many different types of jobs needed in order for JPL to run efficiently, the lab hold s variety of talks and offers different ways for employees to learn more. I’ve been to a few of these presentations and all of them have been informative and are helping me make some choices about what I might want to do in school and in the future.

So to those people who feel that science and technology isn’t for them, there are many different opportunities to contribute to the work done here at JPL — I mean, who doesn’t think it is cool be able to say “I work for NASA”?

August 3, 2010, 17:00 PDT

Pick of the pics

The Earth from the Moon

Credit: NASA / GSFC / Arizona State University.

Credit: NASA / GSFC / Arizona State University.

Normally we see the Earth from space as a gorgeous “blue marble”. Here it is, shown in an eerie grayscale, as seen from the Moon on June 12, 2010 — awe-inspiring yet with a different sheen. The picture was snapped by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) Cameras during a calibration sequence. The LRO has spent over a year on a mission to scout the moon. By imaging the bright Earth against the dark background of space, it’s possible to measure and correct for scattered light effects on the camera — which is important so that scientists can interpret color images from the camera properly.

In case you're wondering why the bottom of the Earth is clipped in this image, it's because the prediction of the exact time when the cameras' fields of view would cross the Earth was off by a few seconds. Nevertheless, it still makes for a spectacular view, don’t you think?

Thanks to the LRO Camera page for the image and information.

August 2, 2010, 17:00 PDT

Weather got its freak on

Snowpocalypse Redux

From Michelle Williams, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Though the summer heat and humidity makes it seem like a lifetime ago, the record-breaking snows in the eastern U.S. last winter are not something we will soon forget. Several feet of powder fell on most of the Mid-Atlantic region during February 2010, and a study from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory gives us new insight into what caused the freaky weather.

A rare combination of weather — not climate — patterns seems to be the culprit. El Niño produced abnormally wet conditions in the southeastern U.S.; a negative North Atlantic Oscillation pushed frigid Arctic air down from the North. This collision of moisture with abnormally cold air led to more than six feet of snow over the region between December 2009 and February 2010.

The visualization above, derived from the Goddard Earth Observing System Model Version 5 (GEOS-5) and created by NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio, shows the first wave of the February snowstorms hitting the East Coast about four seconds into the animation. The second wave forms off the west coast of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula — about twelve seconds in — and then pummels the East Coast.

Cross posted and adapted from NASA’s What on Earth blog. Michelle is based in Washington, D.C.

August 2, 2010, 17:00 PDT

Hogwarts or hurricanes?

Keeping an eye on the storm scientist

Patricia Song

The latest dispatch from Patricia Song, a summer student who is working with the CloudSat mission team here at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

It isn’t often that you meet people who love doing what they do at work. Most people dream of a career but end up working in places that are far from their aspirations. That’s why it’s great when you get the chance to meet someone who loves what they do. One of those people is Dr. Svetla Hristova-Veleva, a scientist here at JPL.

Dr. Svetla Hristova-Veleva, who uses satellite data to study how hurricanes form.
Dr. Svetla Hristova-Veleva, who uses satellite data to study how hurricanes form.

Dr. Hristova-Veleva’s office is in building 300. A room cluttered with books, computers, and papers — stacks of research results and reference material. It feels almost magical to be in a room filled with so much knowledge and so many questions — I liken it to stepping into a classroom at Hogwarts and feeling like the 11-year old Harry Potter.

Of course, to understand a person’s job, you must first know what they do. Dr. Hristova-Veleva works with hurricane models — a bit like the forecasts that help us predict the weather. Her childhood dream of being an astronaut started her along a science path, and as she learned more about physics and the Earth, she became more intrigued with the weather. How do scientists get their ideas? Often it seems that they research things we never think about, things we take for granted in our daily lives. Dr. Hristova-Veleva’s answer was simple: “By asking questions.” The science community functions well because of the way researchers communicate, the way they share observations, ideas and questions. This helps them brainstorm and formulate the questions and experiments that are needed to find out more about a particular piece of science — like hurricanes, for example.


It turns out that studying weather models is a multi-disciplinary subject. As Dr. Hristova-Veleva explained, accurate hurricane models require people with knowledge of, among other things, physics, computers, math, chemistry and ecology. Her work currently involves using satellite data to develop algorithms that describe hurricanes and other rainy systems. It sounds complicated and I certainly do not fully understand all her work, but then I don't need to in order to see how much she enjoys herself. The look in her eyes as she describes her research is as if she is flying through the storm itself, not just looking at it from above.

For more information on NASA's work on hurricanes and tropical cyclones, visit our hurricane portal. Or NASA's hurricane Twitter feed.