Space Place Live! with Deborah Vane


Meet our guest Deborah Vane. She's a physicist who always loved astronomy, came to NASA to work on a Mars robot lander mission, and then got interested in Earth studies too. Now she's a scientist on the CloudSat Mission and is here to tell us all about it.

Start of show

KATE: Welcome to another edition of Space Place Live! I'm Kate. And this is Carlos.

CARLOS: Today's episode is brought to you by radar: Detecting objects and their distances since 1935. And . . .

KATE: . . . by CloudSat, because the inside of the cloud is just as important as the outside.

CARLOS: Today's show is a big deal. So we're gonna go ahead and dive right into it. Sitting here with us is NASA scientist, Deborah Vane, who's working on the CloudSat mission over at JPL.

KATE: Thanks for coming, Deb. How about you start us off by telling us why it's so important to study clouds.

DEB: Well, clouds are actually the biggest unknown that we have about climate. You know you can think of clouds in a couple of ways. You can think of clouds . . . let's say you think of clouds as like an umbrella. Something you would hold over you to shield you from the Sun if it was a hot day.

CARLOS: Oh, I just happen to have a picture of that.

DEB: Some clouds act very much like that. They cut out the amount of sunlight that gets down to the Earth's surface and they cool the Earth because they reflect a lot of light back up into space.

KATE: But I'm always hearing about clouds trapping heat.

DEB: There are other clouds that act more like a blanket, that keep the Earth warm because they let quite a bit of sunlight through that gets down to the surface. When that sunlight reflects off the surface, it actually changes . . . there's a lot more of what we call infrared energy, the heat. And those clouds that let some more of the sunlight through aren't very good about letting the infrared heat out. So they kind of trap the warmth.

CARLOS: We'll let all this cool info sink into our brains while we take this commercial break.

This episode of Space Place Live is brought to you by CloudSat. To learn more about Cloudsat visit "Learn Cloudspeak"

KATE: And we're back chatting with Deb Vane. Before the break, she was telling us about clouds. But now I gotta ask. There's so many weather satellites in space right now. How come we don't know everything about clouds already?

DEB: The satellites in orbit right now, all they can do is see the top of the clouds. They don't see down into the clouds and they don't see if there are two layers of clouds. They can't see through the top layer down to another layer. If you're here at the surface and your looking up you see the bottom of the clouds, but you don't see the top, so we never have had a complete picture of the clouds all the way from the top down to the surface.

KATE: So how is CloudSat so different? How will it show us new things about clouds?

DEB: We're going to use radar. We're going to bounce radar signals through the atmosphere from the satellite down to the ground. And those radar signals are gonna go through clouds and they're gonna get reflected by the cloud particles and so it's gonna tell us how much cloud is in between us up in the satellite and the surface and tells us how thick the clouds are and how much water and ice they have.

CARLOS: Man, how high up does this satellite have to go to take pictures of clouds?

DEB: It's 700 kilometers above the Earth and this is where all the satellites are in what we call polar orbit.

KATE: Uh, Carlos, you're supposed to be holding up the next sign. What are you doing? Carlos, you wrote on the sign!

CARLOS: It was an accident. I was just trying to figure out how far 700 kilometers is.

KATE: It's a little over 420 miles.

CARLOS: Oh. Well, thanks. Sorry about that Deb. Please continue.

DEB: That's an orbit that takes them from the South Pole to the North Pole and back down to the South Pole. But we don't see the whole Earth at one time. We only see just a slice of it as we're going over from pole to pole. If you really want to get back and see the whole Earth, you have to be much further out.

KATE: We'll take a short break here and we'll return with more of Deb.

This episode of Space Place Live is brought to you by CloudSat. Helping us understand more about our Planets Atmosphere.

CARLOS: Welcome back to Space Place Live! During our break, Deb mentioned that CloudSat is not only a NASA project, but a lot of other groups are in it too. Right?

DEB: We have people involved from Australia, from England, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Japan, the Canadian Space Agency, the Air Force and the Department of Energy. And it just increases with time.

KATE: It's cool that people from all over the world can work together on one project.

CARLOS: How about telling us a little bit about how you got interested in science.

DEB: My interest in astronomy probably started when I was 6 years old. That's when my dad got the telescope and I used to dream about being an astronomer and spending the night up on the mountain in the observatory and watching the stars at night.

KATE: Was your dad the one that got you hooked on science?

DEB: My dad was very influential. And my teachers were influential too. Whenever I showed an interest in something, they always seemed to challenge me to learn more. But my dad I think was the one who played the biggest role in just introducing me to science and scientific things.

CARLOS: I know Kate is just itching to ask you another question, because she's never met a woman scientist before.

KATE: Yeah, I've always liked science, but I rarely hear about women scientists.

DEB: There are a lot more women now. Over time I've seen the numbers of women grow tremendously. So now if you're a woman coming into science or coming into engineering you're not alone by a long shot. But the guys aren't bad either, you know! They're pals and co-workers and we have a lot of fun.

KATE: Speaking of fun, we hear you used to have a pretty funky job when you were in college.

DEB: I worked at a disco. That was a great job. I did that when I . . . after I graduated from high school and also during college.

CARLOS: What do you do for fun nowadays?

DEB: I like to ski and hike. I love to hike. And, boy, that's probably how I spend most of my time. I ski quite a lot and hike quite a lot. I go up to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and hike there. Especially in the summertime.

CARLOS: Before we go, do you have any words of advice for our viewers who might want to be scientists?

DEB: Stay with it. Work hard. Go back, ask questions. Do your homework. Go back and ask questions again. So don't be afraid to go back and ask and ask and ask and ask until you understand it. And then you will always understand it. You will never forget how to do that particular kind of problem. Yeah, it's some work. But you can't be afraid to work hard, because it feels good after you work hard and you do something well.

KATE: Oh, wow. It's a shame we have to go, because now I have even more questions. Doggonit!

CARLOS: Oh great! Once Kate goes on one of her question trips it'll take a while for her to calm down. Well, I guess that's it for today's show. Thank you very much for being here, Deb. I know you have a very busy schedule.

KATE: And keep an eye out for more Space Place Live!

End of show