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It’s a bird, it’s a plane – it’s Superman!…nope, even better: it’s NASA

It’s a bird, it’s a plane – it’s Superman!…nope, even better: it’s NASA.

NASA has eyes in the skies, helping to monitor and protect us. Each day, NASA satellites collect and transmit valuable data about environmental conditions on earth, including climate change and the impact of natural disasters.

But this information is useless without the astute scientists who analyze and interpret the images to improve the management of the world’s natural resources and develop emergency response plans. Miguel Román is one of those scientists. He’s a research physical scientist at Terrestrial Information Systems Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and is credited with providing timely and reliable information on wildfires, storm damage and global energy consumption. For this work, he’s been nominated for the Service to America Medals, (Sammies) – the Oscars for federal employees.

The DorobekINSIDER is talking to all the Sammies finalists this summer. In this interview, Román told Chris Dorobek about how his team is hard at work to understand how the earth’s systems work.

The work that Román and his team focuses on two major aspects of understanding the Earth System:

  • The first part is to provide satellite measurements of the earth’s land surface to relevant communities quickly. The Lab’s communities include fire managers, hurricane forecasters, and field scientists. The Lab ships about 12 terabytes of data every day. (Two terabytes is roughly the equivalent of the entire holding of the Library of Congress.)
  • The second part is climate change monitoring. The lab is the quintessential laboratory for the development of long-term climate data records for the U.S. The Lab looks at our measurement scope back to the beginning of the NASA satellite missions, and makes the corrections necessary to make sure that our measurements are suitable for climate monitoring.

Román’s joint NASA-NOAA team recently demonstrated a 25 percent improvement in the detection of wildfires using thermal infrared imaging technology from the Suomi-NPP spacecraft. This is now enabling the U.S. and foreign governments to more effectively plan their response to wildfires, including positioning of equipment and personnel to fight the fires and being able to more quickly evacuate people who may be in danger.

Connecting the science to the people is key. “We have the role of monitoring the entire earth as a system,” said Román. “It’s our job to look at the land, at the ocean, at the atmosphere and figure how each process interacts with each other, and more importantly, how humans interact with that system.”

Román also has used satellite imagery of nighttime lights in 500 cities across the U.S., Europe, China and the Middle East to characterize electricity usage. Accurate information about energy usage provides essential data needed to study climate change, and his work is helping to better analyze the magnitude of daily, weekly and seasonal energy demand.

There’s a lot of almost debate these days about what the role of government should be. A lot of other organizations, like the Weather Channel, actually use the Lab’s data.

“Our purpose, and our number one priority, is to protect our citizens,” said Roman. “I think in the sense of the long-term effects of climate change and its impacts on natural disasters, it is our responsibility to make sure that our communities are safe, and that they can become more resilient as we enter into a new era where we have a warming planet and we are more susceptible to disasters.”

Román first came to NASA in 2003 as a Minority University Research and Education Program intern from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. In 2009, after graduating from Cornell University’s program in systems engineering and receiving his doctorate in geography from Boston University, he became a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“I began as an intern at NASA studying electrical engineering. I was paired with a hydrologist (Dr. Christa Peters-Lidard). She taught me everything about NASA Earth Science. She also introduced me to satellite remote sensing. I think this recognition is a credit to an Agency that fosters a highly educated workforce, and that actually nurtures and has a long term commitment for STEM education,” said Román. “That’s one of the things NASA does really well.”

Román said despite the criticisms of the federal government, it’s a great place to work. “It is a privilege to be working for an agency that taps into the best talent from across different agencies, across different companies and academia. These are things that of course government can do, but it is smarter to be able to tap into the brains in Academia and our technical experts in industry to do that together. Climate change is one of those things you can’t just do it alone, we’re all in this together and we’re going have to figure out how to do it together. We don’t just use satellites to spy on people — we use them to save lives and protect our home Planet.”

All our Sammies interviews.

*Photo by Sam Kittner

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