Studying water processes at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Oxford DPhil student, Homero Paltan shares his experience of a summer spent at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

The Von Karman Auditorium, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California is lined with artefacts chronicling the history of space science; these include replicas of the Mars Rover, the Explorer 1 and the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft. It was in this room I received an induction to the JPL back in May. Following the talk, I chanced upon a large screen listing known habitable planets: 17 at that time, drawn from few thousand already identified. In these early encounters, I was immediately struck by the transcendence and history of the place where I would spend the rest of my summer.


Induction day at the JPL – jet-lagged.

I arrived at the JPL on the invitation of Dr Duane Waliser, Chief Scientist of the JPL’s Earth Science and Technology Directorate. The aim of my visit was to expand our understanding of the physical drivers of global hydrological extremes. In particular, we were keen to identify catchments where atmospheric rivers make landfall and become relevant to water resource managers. Yes, there are also rivers in the atmosphere! These are channels where moisture moves between the tropics and mid to high latitudes. A convergence of moisture in these atmospheric rivers can lead intense precipitation and flooding on the ground. Conversely, improving the understanding of the low flows maintained by atmopsheric rivers could be vital for managing drought.

While at Oxford, I’d worked with my supervisor, Prof Simon Dadson, to test and implement a hydrological framework connecting atmosphere, land surface interactions, hydrological variables and rivers dynamics. At the JPL, we would make use of NASA’s computing power, and most importantly the atmospheric rivers database developed by Dr Waliser and Dr Bin Guan, to run series of sensitivity experiments.

I met some brilliant minds at the JPL, and came across a number of interesting projects; these included an evaluation of the future SWOT (Surface Water & Ocean Topography) mission that will detect the change of water bodies over time at finer scales; the ongoing GRACE (Gravity, Recovery and Climate Experiment) mission that measures the change in water masses; and projects that improve cloud detection in order to make better climate projection models. I also had the opportunity to receive technical support from the group led by former Oxford post-doc, Dr Josh Fisher. This group uses satellite and modelling techniques to study global ecosystems.


Where satellites and spacecraft are assembled.

As a traditional ‘water person’ this was the first time I’d met actual rocket scientists. When engaging in conversation with those outside my division, I learnt how important it was to emphasize where I was doing my study. I’d often introduce myself with a short explanation of my topic – “I study water sources and water extremes”. This was invariably met with the following response: – ‘Oh, cool! On what planet?!’.

Other highlights included a series of interesting talks about missions to Mars, and how JPL technology is improving the understanding of the California drought. However these were eclipsed by a visit to the JPLs laboratories and its Space Flight Operation Facility. It was impressive witnessing engineers making the satellites that I will use in future to understand the water cycle. The Space Flight Operation Facility is one of the most iconic rooms at JPL, and yes it is as impressive as it looks (see picture below).


Space Flight Operation Facility

After 3 months of data crunching, my time at the JPL came to an end. By this point we’d got some exciting findings, some of which we presented at a conference at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, San Diego. It was great meeting and working with such interesting people, experiencing the JPL’s facilities and developing a collaboration that has made a tangible contribution to the exploration of the complexities of water. We believe our work marks a significant step towards managing water resources in areas highly exposed to hydrological extremes.

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