NASA

By Jove, it’s Jupiter!

By Jim Haklar

If you look high in the south at sunset this time of year, you’ll see a bright “star” that’s really not a star at all. You’ll be looking at Jupiter – the largest planet in the solar system.

Jupiter is the 5th planet from the sun and is called a “gas giant” planet because it doesn’t have a solid surface (like the Earth). According to NASA, Jupiter’s atmosphere is made up of mostly hydrogen and helium, similar to the Sun, and if Jupiter were more massive it would have become a star. There is a huge storm in Jupiter’s atmosphere called the Great Red Spot. The Great Red Spot has been around for hundreds of years and is so big that the Earth can fit inside it!

Jupiter has over 50 moons and four of them are bright enough to be seen with binoculars. These four moons were discovered by Galileo in 1610 and are called the Galilean moons. The Galilean moons are named Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Io, the Galilean moon closest to Jupiter, has volcanos that are active. The surface of Europa is covered in ice and may have an ocean of water underneath. Ganymede is larger than the planet Mercury; it’s the largest moon in the solar system. Callisto’s surface has many craters and is thought to be very old, from the time when the solar system was young.

If you look at Jupiter over several hours you can actually see the moons moving. In a small telescope you can sometimes see the shadow of the moons cross over the planet’s atmosphere. This is called a shadow transit.

Right now Jupiter is easy to see right after sunset. But over the next few months it will start appearing lower at sunset until it passes behind the Sun in August. Then it will once again become visible, but in the morning before sunrise. So try and catch the “King of the Planets” before it’s too late!

About the Author: Jim is an environmental engineer at EPA’s Edison, New Jersey Environmental Center.  In his 30 years with the Agency he has worked in a variety of programs including Superfund, Water Management, Public Affairs, and Toxic Substances.  He has been an amateur astronomer since he was a teenager, and can often be found after work in the back of the Edison facility with one of his telescopes.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Tracking Blooms from the Sky

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

Image of a map created with the new app.

Water quality managers can drop location pins in their water bodies of interest and the pins change colors depending on user settings.

With help from partners, EPA is going above and beyond the agency’s traditional methods of monitoring harmful algal blooms in water. EPA has joined NASA, NOAA, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to use satellite data to monitor algal blooms and develop an early warning indicator system for toxic and nuisance blooms.

Algal blooms have caused extensive problems in lakes worldwide. We saw this in August, 2014 when half a million people living in and around Toledo, Ohio were issued a water advisory alerting them to avoid all contact with Toledo drinking water after a harmful algal bloom of cyanobateria in Lake Erie had produced unsafe levels of the toxin microcystin.

Blooms like these are becoming a more frequent occurrence and are having greater impacts than ever before. The estimated annual cost of U.S. freshwater degraded by harmful algal blooms is $64 million in additional drinking water treatment, loss of recreational water usage, and decline in waterfront real estate values.

The new multi-agency effort will build on previous NASA ocean satellite sensor technologies created to study the global ocean’s microscopic algal communities. EPA researchers will provide the science that links the current and historical satellite data on cyanobacteria algal blooms provided by NASA, NOAA, and USGS to monitor changes in the environment, assess economic impacts, and protect human health.

The first step in the five-year project will be creating a reliable, standard method for identifying cyanobacteria blooms in U.S. freshwater lakes and reservoirs using ocean color satellite data. NOAA and NASA have lead the way in using oceanic satellite data for monitoring and forecasting harmful algal blooms and EPA is integrating this data into the decision-making process.

Researchers will also conduct a large-scale investigation of potential causes of harmful algal blooms in U.S. freshwater systems. Blooms in lakes and estuaries result from aquatic plants receiving a combination of excess nutrients, perhaps from river runoff, and other environmental conditions such as temperature and light. Various land uses, such as urbanization or modernized agricultural practices, influence the amount of sediment and nutrients delivered in watersheds, which can influence cyanobacterial growth.

This innovative use of satellite data to monitor and report blooms throughout a region or state will help with management of events and significantly reduce risk to the public. Ultimately, this project will reduce the amount of resources needed to protect human health and the environment.

About the Author: Science writer and student contractor Kacey Fitzpatrick is a frequent contributor to It All Starts with Science.

 

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Monitoring Harmful Algal Blooms? There’s an App for That!

By Annie Zwerneman

Algal bloom covers a lake.

Algal bloom covers a lake.

I was recently on my favorite hiking trail, which passes by a beautiful lake. But this time hiking past it, I noticed a strange, dark scum creeping along the shoreline of the water. I learned later that this scum was actually an algal bloom: a population of algae increasing quickly over a short period of time.

Some algal blooms are merely an eyesore, but others fall into a more serious category called “harmful algal blooms” (HABs): algae and cyanobacteria (formerly known as blue-green algae) that remove oxygen from the water, crowding their way along the surface and producing toxins that are harmful to animals. The toxins that HABs produce can affect peoples’ health, too.

EPA has been working to monitor HABs, including taking water samples to see where and how algal blooms may affect you. Unfortunately, taking such water samples is time-intensive, so EPA has been working alongside scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to find new ways to monitor the quality of inland water bodies, such as lakes and reservoirs. EPA hopes to monitor estuaries and coastal waters in the future as well.

A new Android app is being developed that displays imagery of cyanobacterial cell counts in freshwater systems, which can indicate the presence of HABs. Expected to be in beta testing this fall, the app will provide information necessary for locating and monitoring HABs. It’s primarily aimed toward stakeholders like health departments and municipalities (such as water treatment plants).

The app will display data from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite. In the near future, EPA researchers hope to incorporate the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-3 and potentially the Landsat-8 satellite as well. They will work with their NOAA, USGS, and NASA partners to pull all these capabilities together once the app is ready for public use.

The way the app will work is a bit like the weather station. At the beginning of each week, the cell count will be updated based on the satellite information gathered the previous week. There may even be a prediction of the cell count for the upcoming week available. For example, you can get a cell count in Lake Erie for the current week, and then get a prediction of what the cell count may be next week.

Thanks to the collaborative effort of multiple federal agencies, those looking for information about freshwater quality and HABs won’t have to look far: there will be an app for that!

About the Author: Annie Zwerneman is a 2014 summer intern working for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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DISCOVER-AQ: Tracking Pollution from the Skies (and Space) Above Denver

NASA four-engine turboprop P-38 takes to the sky

NASA four-engine turboprop takes to the sky for clean air science.

 

EPA scientists have teamed up with colleagues from NASA to advance clean air research. Below is the latest update about that work. 

Denver is the last of four cities in a study by EPA and partners that will give scientists a clearer picture of how to better measure air pollution with instruments positioned on the earth’s surface, flying in the air, and from satellites in space.

The NASA-led study is known as DISCOVER-AQ, and is being conducted July 14 to August 12 in Denver.  The research began in 2011 with air quality measuring conducted in the Baltimore-Washington, DC, area followed by a field campaign in California’s San Joaquin Valley and Houston in 2013.

Right now, monitoring for pollutants such as sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, particulates and ozone is done by ground-based systems strategically located across the U.S. to measure air quality in metropolitan areas and on a regional basis. Researchers want to tap satellite capabilities to look at pollution trends across wide swaths of the country.

“The advantage of using satellites is you can cover a wider area,” said Russell Long, an EPA project scientist.  “But right now, it’s hard for satellites to determine what air pollutants are close to the ground.”

Satellites could be an important tool for monitoring air quality given the large gaps in ground-based pollution sensors across the country and around the world. Improved satellite measurements should lead to better air quality forecasts and more accurate assessments of pollution sources and fluctuations.

However one of the fundamental challenges for space-based instruments that monitor air quality is to distinguish between pollution high in the atmosphere and pollution near the surface where people live.

Ground-based air sensor station

Ground-based air sensor station from the study’s previous Baltimore and Washington area component.

The ground-based sensor readings taken by EPA and other partners in DISCOVER-AQ will be compared to air samples taken by NASA aircraft flown between 1,000 and 15,000 feet in the skies above the Denver metropolitan area. EPA scientists are using the opportunity during the DISCOVER-AQ study to also test various types of low-cost and portable ground-based sensors to determine which ones work the best.

“Our goal is to evaluate the sensors to see how well they perform,” Long said. “By including more sensors it increases our understanding of how they perform in normal monitoring applications and how they compare to the gold standard (for measuring air quality) of reference instrumentation.”

New sensors could augment existing monitoring technology to help air quality managers implement the nation’s air quality standards.

Another big part of EPA’s involvement in DISCOVER-AQ is working with schools and academic institutions to develop a robust citizen science component for pollution monitoring. In Houston, hundreds of student-led research teams all worked to test the air pollution technology by taking regular readings at their schools when NASA aircraft flew overhead.

In Denver, most schools are out for the summer, but EPA researchers will be partnering with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to share what they are doing in DISCOVER-AQ with the general public.

Long says he is also working with University of Colorado Boulder to look at a unique three-dimensional model of air pollution in the great Denver area. The end result of DISCOVER-AQ will be a   global view of pollution problems, from the ground to space, so that decision makers have better data and communities can better protect public health.

Learn More

EPA DISCOVER-AQ

NASA Discover-AQ Mission

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Join an Open-source Apps Challenge This Weekend

By Darshan Karwat

Announcement for Baltimore-Washington Space Apps ChallengeWhen I attended a Google Solve For <X> event at the US Capitol building on a chilly afternoon last fall, I did not expect to come away with a seed of an idea that would sprout into one of my major projects here at EPA. Innovative collaborations are sparked in unexpected places.

On that afternoon I met Jenn Gustetic—a fellow aerospace engineer and the Prizes and Challenges Program Executive in the Office of the Chief Technologist at NASA—who said, “You should propose a challenge for the NASA International Space Apps Challenge.”

“Why not?” I thought.

The NASA International Space Apps Challenge is a two-day, worldwide, collaborative problem-solving event that brings the public, community groups, and government agencies together to produce open-source solutions. This year’s event is this weekend, April 12-13.  One of the challenge themes this year is Earth Watch.

“How cool,” I thought.  “How cool,” I still think.

I started with initial conversations with scientists and colleagues from the United States Global Change Research Program. Those conversations generated a host of ideas for challenges.

Over the past few months, we’ve whittled the possible ideas down to Cool It! and Community Visions of Climate Adaptation —  two of the twenty final Earth Watch challenges, and two of the six climate-related challenges presented on President Obama’s data.gov website.

Cool It! brings together hardware builders, coders, engineers, social scientists, teachers, and community members to create sensor kits that measure temperature and relative humidity, in several locations, in real time. The data they collect will be used  to educate the community about the urban heat island effect, weather, and climate.

Public Lab, a non-profit organization that develops and applies open-source tools for environmental education, will provide expertise and resources for the Cool It! projects after the end of the NASA International Space Apps Challenge. With the urban heat island affect disproportionately burdening underserved communities, Public Lab is the perfect organization to link Cool It! and community science with positive environmental outcomes for all.

By using the latest scientific data from sources like the 2009 National Climate Assessment, the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report, or the 2012 EPA Climate Indicators Report, builders working on Community Visions of Climate Adaptation will create apps, web interactives, maps, 3D models, and visualizations to help communities across the country adapt to a changing climate. People who sign up for this project will work with community residents, urban planners, and city officials to create climate adaptation plans that reflect community needs for the coming decades.

The Space Apps Challenge provides a working model of community collaboration, science, and education that addresses important environmental issues and promotes technological development to serve the needs of disadvantaged populations.

Attend and support a Space Apps staging location close to where you are this weekend, or participate remotely. To infinity and beyond!…and back down to Earth.

About the author: Darshan Karwat is an American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) fellow with the Innovation Team in the Office of Research and Development.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Rethinking Wastewater

By Marguerite Huber

glass of beer

The next time you enjoy a beer you might be helping the environment.

The next time you enjoy a cold, refreshing beer or glass of wine, you might also be helping the environment. Over 40 billion gallons of wastewater are produced every day in the United States, and wineries, breweries, and other food and beverage producers are significant contributors.  For example, the brewing industry averages five or six barrels of water to produce just one barrel of beer.

But where most see only waste, others see potential resources. What we label “wastewater” can contain a wealth of compounds and microbes, some of which can be harvested.

One innovative company that has recognized this, Cambrian Innovation, is harnessing wastewater’s potential through the world’s first bioelectrically-enhanced, wastewater-to-energy systems, EcoVolt. (We first blogged about them in 2012.)

Cambrian Innovation is working with Bear Republic Brewing Company, one of the largest craft breweries in the United States. Located in California, which is suffering from severe drought, Bear Republic first began testing Cambrian’s technology to save water and reduce energy costs. Fifty percent of the brewery’s electricity and more than twenty percent of its heat needs could be generated with EcoVolt. Compared to industry averages, Bear Republic uses only three and a half barrels of water to produce one barrel of beer.

The EcoVolt bioelectric wastewater treatment system leverages a process called “electromethanogenesis,” in which electrically-active organisms convert carbon dioxide and electricity into methane, a gas used to power generators.  The methane is renewable and can provide an energy source to the facility.

Rather than being energy intensive and expensive, like traditional wastewater treatment, Cambrian’s technology generates electricity as well as cost savings.

Furthermore, the EcoVolt technology is capable of automated, remote operation, which can further decrease operating costs.

EPA first awarded Cambrian Innovation a Phase I (“proof of concept”) Small Business Innovation Research contract in 2010. Based on that work, the company then earned a Phase II contract in 2012 to develop wastewater-to-energy technology. Cambrian Innovation has also developed innovative solutions with funding from other partners, including the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of Defense, and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

With access to water sources becoming more of a challenge in many areas of the country, Cambrian’s technology can help change how we look at wastewater. It doesn’t have to be waste! Wastewater can instead be an asset, but only as long as we keep pushing its potential. That can make enjoying a cold glass of your favorite beverage even easier to enjoy!

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Watching a Rocket Launch

By Jim Haklar

NASA Rocket Launch

NASA Rocket Launch

I have always enjoyed watching NASA’s rocket launches on television, whether they were the Apollo Moon missions or an unmanned probe. In 2008, I was lucky enough to be at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis. It was an awesome sight that I’ll never forget.

But did you know that you can see rocket launches without going all the way to Florida? NASA has a facility in Virginia, called the Wallops Flight Facility, where rockets are launched. And depending on the weather, the time of the launch, and where you live, you just may be able to see one of these rockets head into space.

I had such an opportunity on September 6, 2013, when NASA launched the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer – LADEE for short. The launch was scheduled for 11:37 p.m. and the sky was clear. From my viewpoint at the EPA’s Edison, New Jersey Environmental Center, I first saw the rocket about a minute after lift-off. While I couldn’t see any details on the rocket, I could easily see the exhaust. In about a minute it was all over and the rocket headed into orbit, ultimately destined for the Moon.

Launches from the Wallops Flight Facility are announced beforehand with detailed information on when and where to look, so if you’re interested pull up a lawn chair and enjoy. It’s fun, and you don’t have to travel all the way to Florida!

About the Author: Jim is an environmental engineer at EPA’s Edison, New Jersey Environmental Center. In his 28 years with the Agency he has worked in a variety of programs including Superfund, Water Management, Public Affairs, and Toxic Substances. He has been an amateur astronomer since he was a teenager, and can often be found after work in the back of the Edison facility waiting for the next rocket launch.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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DISCOVER-AQ: Reaching for the Sky with Student Citizen Scientists

By Dana Buchbinder

NASA aircraft takes off.

DISCOVER-AQ aircraft takes to the sky. Image courtesy of NASA.

As school reopens with bouquets of newly-sharpened yellow pencils (as they say in the movies), even recent graduates like me get swept up in the excitement: a new season of academic discovery! This fall, an EPA partnership with NASA is helping the next generation of students experience the thrill of air quality research first-hand.

During this mission, named DISCOVER-AQ (the “AQ” stands for “air quality”), our team will employ the help of young “citizen scientists” in Houston to test new compact sensor technologies for measuring ozone and nitrogen dioxide air pollutants at the earth’s surface.

A science teacher and EPA researcher stand beneath a new compact air sensor students will operate at a Houston, Texas public school.

A science teacher and EPA researcher stand beneath a new compact air sensor students will operate at a Houston, Texas public school.

Citizen science is a style of research that encourages inexperienced and even very young participants to help with professionally organized research projects. Volunteers collect simple field data that would be difficult for the lead researches to gather without many hands. If projects inspire awe, discovery, and insight along the way, well, that was part of the plan.

The multi-year DISCOVER-AQ project uses airplanes and ground-based instruments to help scientists better understand how to measure and forecast air quality globally from space. My colleagues recently installed compact ground-based devices for the third of four DISCOVER-AQ field missions. The devices—small enough to be held in one hand—were placed at eight Houston area public schools. EPA-trained teachers will lead their students in operating the new air monitors. Elementary, middle, and high school students will contribute the data they collect to the EPA research team, helping professional scientists develop needed updates to methods of standardizing air quality measurements across the country.

Compact air sensor that students will operate as part of the EPA-NASA project DISCOVER-AQ.

Compact air sensor that students will operate as part of the EPA-NASA project DISCOVER-AQ.

EPA DISCOVER-AQ researcher Dr. Russell Long reports, “The school’s principals and teachers are very excited about what’s going on; they say it’s a great opportunity for their students.” These educators have already requested that EPA scientists working with the schools to ensure high quality data will double as guest speakers for the classes, helping kids make the connection between book science and research in action. The scientists are thrilled to participate. We are fine-tuning a set of air, climate, and energy activities to support the project’s science concepts in classrooms.

NASA partners also see the project as a unique opportunity for sharing their work with young people. In the NASA component of the project, pilots will fly aircraft fitted with air monitoring equipment at scheduled times over the schools. The flight data will be matched with ground-based data to help researchers measure air pollutants that permeate the air column. Students will be able to talk with the pilots during these coordinated fly-overs while they watch the planes approach on a tracking app and then zoom overhead!

DISCOVER-AQ is science far beyond the laboratory. The experience will be unmatched for hundreds of students who may not have considered science as a captivating career before. These student scientists can feel proud they’re contributing to fundamental research to help NASA and EPA protect human health and the environment. I look forward to hearing what the students find out!

About the author:  Dana Buchbinder is a Student Services Contractor supporting EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy national research program. She enjoys working on Rachel Carson-worthy projects that help scientists, pre-scientists, and non-scientists “rediscover…the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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