As part of JPL's Earth Sciences team, Mark Helmlinger travels to remote corners of the world to study data from an instrument orbiting hundreds of miles above Earth.
A recent workday for Mark Helmlinger included strapping on snowshoes to trudge through the snow of Colorado to test an instrument called the Multi-Imaging SpectroRadiometer, or MISR. Flying on the polar-orbiting Terra satellite, this instrument collects global images of the sunlit Earth in four colors, at nine widely spaced angles to provide complete coverage of the globe.
MISR studies how energy is absorbed on the surface and in the atmosphere and how particles and clouds influence climate. As a field researcher with the MISR team, Helmlinger travels around the world to test the spaceborne instrument's accuracy and calibrations here on the ground. His ground work also involves AirMISR, another instrument that flies on a NASA ER-2 high-altitude aircraft and validates the accuracy of MISR.
Q: What is your role in ground research?
A: My role is experiment design and execution. The scientist says, "this is what I'm after." I figure out how to set up an experiment to get the wanted data and then go out there and do it. This was my first snow and ice experiment outside of California. We went to Colorado because the snow there is dry and cold, while California snow tends to be wet. This is important because if you can use satellites to determine the melt rate and water content [of snow], it gives predictions needed by environmental people. For this experiment, I was working with Dr. Anne Nolin and Dr. Julienne Stroeve from the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder.
Q: Is it difficult to pull off these experiments?
A: It's like trying to balance pencils. The weather has to be clear, my ground instruments have to be working and the satellite needs to be overhead. When we use the ER-2 [NASA's high-altitude plane], that's a whole bunch of other pencils balanced on top.
Q: Why do we need to verify MISR on the ground?
A: That's the scientific method. The point of experiments is to verify how accurate environmental estimates from MISR data are. My data can also serve to calibrate the satellite from the ground.
Q: How do you set up ground instruments?
A: They're pretty much tripod mounted, which is easy on level ground. In Colorado, I used rental snowshoes and ran AC power, but we're normally solar powered. The instruments have to be kept warm, so we ran several thousand feet of extension cords. Snow covered everything, so I had to use a sledgehammer to get the cords back out. Setting up can be a challenge.
Q: Where have you gone for your field research?
A: Every corner of the United States, northern Saskatchewan, Canada and South Africa.
Q: What's been the greatest challenge?
A: South Africa, because of the logistics involved. In Colorado, I rented an RV, but that wouldn't have worked in Africa. I'm looking forward to some ocean experiments. The real challenge there will be setting up equipment shipboard.
Q: Switching gears, how did your degree in physics help prepare you for your JPL career?
A: One hundred percent - I use all my physics. I went to school [Cal Poly Pomona] part-time and had jobs in the aerospace industry in electro-optics. I got experience in practical applications. I have learned how to bridge between science and engineering. I can apply theory.
Q: When were you first interested in space?
A: Since I was a small child, I've taken things apart to see how they worked. When I was eight, my dad took me to see Stanley Kubrick's "2001" at the Cinerama Dome and to an eight-year-old that was a clear and dramatic promise of America's future in space. I was completely blown away. My father died soon after and it was difficult, but at nine, I watched television in my grandmother's living room [and saw] men walking on the moon. I knew that someday, there are going to be thousands of people in space and I could be one. That [realization] motivated me through school.
Q: Do you have any advice for students wanting science to be their career?
A: Get serious. Recognize what is temporary and what will serve you for the rest of your life. Learn math, learn skills, learn how to use those skills. Take up model rockets, make your own robots, learn how to fix things. Have a hobby that gets you out of the house - wide and varied interests will help you as an adult.