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Summer Internships Kick Off with Earth Science Mission Launch

Summer Internships Kick Off with Earth Science Mission Launch Environmental studies major Dillon Elsbury has interned with the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) mission the past three summers and is ready to see the Earth science satellite finally lift off. OCO-2 is scheduled to launch July 1 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

June 30, 2014

By Alexis Drake

With five NASA Earth science launches planned for 2014, it's the year of looking back -- at our changing planet -- for the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and for the throngs of JPL interns working on Earth science projects this summer.

Of the more than 750 summer students, who started arriving in May for summer internships on various STEM projects, more than 10 percent are working on Earth science, playing key roles in making final preparations for launches, collecting data returned from active spacecraft, even developing new ways to analyze the data that comes back.

Designed to make the first global measurements of the precise sources and sinks of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere, Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, or OCO-2, is especially on the minds of this summer's Earth science interns. The satellite is scheduled to lift off on July 1 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

"OCO-2 is going to allow us to get some of the most accurate carbon dioxide data ever measured from space, and it's providing a global picture for carbon dioxide, which is something that's still lacking in climate studies," said Gregory Osterman, the JPL science validation lead for OCO-2.

Osterman is mentoring several students this summer for the OCO-2 mission and said, "Interns bring a lot of enthusiasm and energy to the team. They also provide new methods while encouraging us to think of things from different angles."

For one of Osterman's students in particular, thinking of things from different angles is all in a day's work. "The scientists have a series of different algorithms to process the data [that's collected from OCO-2]," said Yanbing Zhu, a Caltech freshman whose project this summer is to create visualizations of OCO-2 data. "I am working on getting the final data set into a form that's easier to present and detect various trends."

JPL Intern Yanbing Zhu in front of an OCO-2 banner at JPL Caltech freshman Yanbing Zhu is working with the OCO-2 team to create visualizations of the data returned from the mission. Here she stands beside a banner for the mission at JPL. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Although she only has a couple of weeks under her belt, Zhu is excited to delve into her internship. One project she already has in mind is a visualization for JPL's Virtual Science Data Environment website that will demonstrate how global carbon dioxide levels have changed over time.

Environmental studies major Dillon Elsbury is especially excited for the upcoming launch. Elsbury is in his fourth year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and has worked with Osterman on OCO-2 for the past three summers, comparing satellite and ground-based observations. 

"I want to make people understand the carbon cycle and what's going on with our Earth," said Elsbury, who eventually hopes to pursue a career in water-quality research. "The education part of this mission is really useful."

But until OCO-2 is securely in orbit, Elsbury's mind, as well as the thoughts of everyone on the mission, is on the launch pad. Said Elsbury, "I'll have fingers crossed tonight, as I'm sure everyone will."

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For more information about the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, visit: