Field Research Diversity (credit: Jet Propulsion Laboratory)
When you think about "field work" performed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory it usually conjures images of robots on Mars, cameras focused on Jupiter or Pluto, and landers sampling Titan hydrocarbon air or a monitoring an asteroid. But field work comes in many forms and JPL has been applying its remarkable engineering and scientific talents to collaborate with environmental researchers here on Earth. The new collaborations are accelerating our understanding of how ecosystems function from the arctic to the tropics, to the atmosphere and into the oceans. Reseachers worldwide use the gathered data, often combined with satellite observations and computer models, to tackle environmental challenges in understanding how the Earth's ecosystems and environments interact to form a complex, integrated system.
According to JPL, several new projects for 2017 include: a mission over Hawaii to collect airborne data on the health of coral reefs as well as volcanic eruptions that will be combined with a future satellite mission to study the world's reef ecosystems and provide natural disaster information; a mission for a month-long ocean survey across the Pacific to monitor the diversity of phytoplankton, microscopic photosynthetic organisms, and their impact on the marine carbon cycle; and an airborne campaign over Colorado's winter forests for the first multiyear effort to determine how much water is stored in terrestrial snow-covered regions.
Continuing projects include the JPL's Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) that assesses the condition of threatened coral ecosystems off Palau, Guam, and the Mariana Islands; studies of regional salinity the tropical Pacific using instruments installed in 2016 to investigate the oceanic and atmospheric processes that control changes in salinity; and a third NASA project that continues investigating how the world's largest phyto-plankton bloom, produced by dust and aerosols deposited on the ocean from fires in Africa, gives rise to organic particles influencing clouds and climate in the southeastern Atlantic.
Ecosystems by their very nature are complex and require 'big data' using a multidisclipinary approach. Field sciences like ecology, marine biology, and atmospheric chemistry are all now benefiting from their collaborators at JPL and other NASA laboratories.