Space Careers and Climate Observations
NASA’s headquarters operates from Washington, D.C., but the agency has 10 major space flight centers nationwide working on projects that observe Earth from space, sky, and land to better understand how the systems of the planet interact. These include missions such as NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission, which is set to launch in 2024. According to the mission’s official website, the PACE satellite will provide studies of ocean health by recording ocean color, aerosol, and cloud data from a sun-synchronous orbit.
The process of setting up projects like the PACE mission begins with scientists voicing their opinions. “[NASA] surveys… hundreds and hundreds of scientists around the world [to] determine… what they think is going to be most important [to study],” Blair alum Beth Weinstein, an Observatory Manager at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, explains.
Weinstein’s job consists of overseeing missions like PACE and maintaining all the equipment used. “I'm in charge of the support system that supports the instruments as well as the interfaces to those and other items in the mission,” she says.
Weinstein explains that the observatory team had to ask crucial questions to determine their goal. “What are the requirements of building this mission? What is the design that meets those requirements? And then who is able to build the pieces of it that we need?” she recalls.
Before beginning the PACE mission, the observatory settled on the goal of investigating environmental shifts over time by examining phytoplankton, an organism that plays a central role in ocean ecosystems. The main instrument that Weinstein and her team use to view phytoplankton is the PACE satellite’s Ocean Color Instrument (OCI). This tool gives scientists an opportunity to see changes of color in phytoplankton from space. “There are thousands of different kinds [of phytoplankton] and we can see [them] from space because each one is a slightly different color in the electromagnetic spectrum,” Weinstein describes. As the temperature of the ocean rises, the amount of phytoplankton increases, making the ocean appear more green and serving as an indicator of global warming.
Along with the OCI, the team also uses a polarimeter to survey the atmosphere through photos and data collection. “We circle the whole Earth every two days. Each orbit [lasts] 98 minutes. We are constantly scanning and taking pictures,” Weinstein says.
After NASA collects the data, they publish it for researchers, companies, countries, and citizens worldwide to access. This gives everyone the resources to devise solutions to concerning trends that the data exposes. “Once scientists, governments, and whoever's studying or looking at the information [analyze the data], they'll put out findings that hopefully are actionable for governments,” Weinstein explains. “What NASA does is... actually providing them with the data to see how our Earth is changing, how these different cycles affect each other, and what could possibly be done as a result of that.”