NASA selects 2 women Scripps scientists as finalists for climate change mission

Every day, researchers and scientists around the world work to understand the impacts climate will have on our planet, observing from every perspective, including space.

Now, a leader in space technology has chosen not just one, but two local female scientists to put their satellite missions into concept studies with the goal of tracking the impacts of climate change.

Among the finalists are physical oceanographer Sarah Gille and glacologist Helen Fricker, both of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

“We were absolutely thrilled,” Gille told NBC 7 at the news of her mission selection.

“It was great,” Fricker said. “It was wonderful news.”

It’s news that both scientists worked hard to get.

“I got the call at 8:21 in the morning and I knew it was a US government 202 line number and I’m like ‘Okay there it is,'” Fricker said.

It was a call from NASA. Gille got one, too, telling both scientists their satellite proposals in the coveted Earth System Explorers Program were selected.

“You might think that the first part is that the science has basically passed a rigorous review by a large panel and is considered convincing enough that it’s worth launching a mission,” Fricker said.

Helen Fricker’s Earth Dynamics Geodetic Explorer mission

Fricker’s mission is called EDGE. It stands for Earth Dynamics Geodetic Explorer.

“It’s basically a giant laser pointer in space, but it’s not just one laser pointer, there’s forty of them in space,” Fricker said. “These 40 laser pointers are spread across strips that are 400 meters wide and there are five of them. They basically map the ground in these five strips, giving us the height of the ground and the shape and structure of the canopy and the vegetation cover as well.

But this is not the only data that this satellite will measure.

“Then the other is ice, so ice sheets, glaciers and ice sheets are losing mass quite slowly, but they’re losing it significantly to the ocean, so it’s causing sea level rise,” Fricker said.

By mapping the edges of the ice sheets, Fricker says that way they will be able to see where the ice sheets and glaciers are changing. The information would go to agencies like USGS and NIADC.

“Greenland is a big deal because it was losing a lot of mass to the ocean, West Antarctica was also losing a lot of ice and then the glaciers,” Fricker said.

Fricker says that right now, there isn’t much data with current instruments that map these regions. This is because the orbits are placed differently.

Sarah Gille’s ‘Odysea’ Mission

Meanwhile, Gille’s mission, called Odysea, tracks the interaction of currents and winds using a scattering Doppler meter. She says that while an aircraft version of the instrument exists, this would be the first time it would be on a satellite.

“So what the satellite does is send a signal to the surface of the ocean and measure the reflected energy, and the radar is oriented relative to the direction of the winds,” Gille said.

Simply put, winds drive our weather, and with more information about how they interact with ocean currents, Gille says this satellite could provide more reliable forecasts and information about the arrival of storms. It can also be used during search and rescue operations when people, ships and objects are lost at sea.

Odysea will provide satellite winds at a time of day when we do not have satellite wind products, so it will fill a complete gap in the time-of-day cycle, give us a better picture of storm evolution and also it will give us currents at the same time”, said Gille.

The radar signal changes based on the movement of ocean currents, and the satellite will measure that change, otherwise known as the Doppler shift.

“Odysea will provide currents globally every day across the planet, so it will give us a regular map of ocean currents,” Gille said.

With the next 10 months ahead of them and their teams, both Fricker and Gille will work to complete their concept studies of their respective studies before submitting them to NASA.

“The pressure is on,” Gille said.

“The ultimate goal is to get selected,” Fricker said.

This selection would come from NASA. The space chief will choose two of the four submitted proposals to launch in 2030 and 2032. The missions to be selected will have a budget of $310 million.

Any combination of the four missions presented could be chosen.

Fricker will work on a team of 25 scientists and engineers from around the world, including from the University of Maryland and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Gille’s team includes 20 members with partnerships from the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) and the French Space Agency (CNES).

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