NASA | Planetary Scientist Profile: Emily Wilson

Climate change is arguably one
of the most important issues
facing our planet. And this is a difficult problem
because we don’t have a full
understanding of how much carbon we’re producing through
man-made sources or how much is
occurring from natural sources. And we also don’t know how much
is being removed through
oceanic uptake and
photosynthesis. To solve this, we need to be
able to measure carbon
globally, and have a long term climate record. Both NOAA and NASA scientists
have been working on these
problems, and that’s and that’s where my research
comes into play. My name is Emily Wilson, I’m
the Lab Chief of the Laser
Remote Sensing Lab at NASA Goddard Space Flight
Center. I develop miniaturized
instruments that measure
greenhouse gases in the
atmosphere. One of these instruments is a
miniaturized laser heterodyne
radiometer, and we call that the mini-LHR
for short. Our vision is to develop a low
cost global network of mini-LHR instruments that
measure greenhouse gases. To do this, we’ve partnered
with AERONET. This is a global network of
about five hundred instruments
that measure aerosols in the atmosphere. We’ve designed the mini-LHR to
operate in tandem with the
AERONET sun photometer so that we can deploy our
instrument into their network. The way the mini-LHR works is
that sunlight that’s passed through
greenhouse gases in the
atmosphere is collected with optics that
are connected to the side of an
AERONET sun tracker. So we mix sunlight and laser
light to produce a beat signal. And from this beat signal we can then calculate the
concentration of greenhouse
gases in the atmospheric column. On a daily basis I work on
improvements to the
instruments, so I’m working in
the lab. I’m also working on proposals
and publications. And in addition, I manage the
Laser Remote Sensing Lab, which
has about thirty people. The most exciting part of my
job is testing an instrument in
the field. It’s a completely different
experience to get an instrument
working in the lab than it is in the field, for
example, on a volcano at eleven
thousand feet. Instrument development is not
like the science that you see on TV where
something big happens all of a
sudden. It’s slow, steady progress to
develop your instrument. You’re troubleshooting, you’re
trying to figure out why things
aren’t working, you’re improving components. And eventually you create a
characterized instrument that
you can take to the field and deploy. Everybody assumes that NASA is
all space flight, but the reality is that here we
do a lot of earth-science
applications and work on projects to protect
our planet. Working on the mini-LHR is
exciting because we’re going to produce
a low-cost instrument that can
contribute to the global effort to better
understand climate change.


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