People of PACE: Corrine Rojas Helps Connect Science to Engineering and Back

Corrine Rojas is a scientific programmer in the ocean ecology lab at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center.

Before we dive into your work with PACE, what is your favorite ocean- or atmosphere-related book or movie?

I’m a big fan of ridiculous sci-fi/horror movies, and when it comes to the depths of the ocean, Sphere (1998) is one of my favorites in that genre. It’s a psychological thriller with everything you’d ever want – logistically impossible ocean research vessels, Hollywood science, aliens, spooky deep-sea fish, and even Queen Latifah! 

Corrine stands to the left of the image in a nacy blue polo and black pants. Directly behind and to the right of her is Optimism. The rover has large black wheels and it's main frame is covered in several mechanical pieces and wires. The "face" of the rover is on it's left side, still to the right of Corrine.
A picture of Corrine Rojas and the Perseverance Rover’s twin on Earth, Optimism, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. Optimism is a vehicle system test bed used for safety testing of moves and navigation scenarios on Earth before performing them on Mars. (more info here: Image Credit: Corrine Rojas

What is your background? What do you do for PACE?

Before PACE, I worked on a lunar mission called Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and then a couple of Mars missions including the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers. And now I’m here, back down to Earth! I’m doing science operations for Earth missions that look at ocean ecology. And there is just so much life to track here! Doing science operations, I’m a liaison between the engineering team that will control the spacecraft and the scientists that will be monitoring the atmosphere and the ocean ecology. I have to have a background in both science and engineering. I moved to Maryland from Arizona, and before PACE I was working on the Jezero Delta on Mars, near where the Perseverance rover landed. So, I’m coming in from two different deserts, and I now live much closer to the ocean flora and fauna looking at the ocean from space for a living. I feel like a little alien!


What does programming and science operations entail?

As a programmer, I’m developing tools that will tell the spacecraft where to look. Once we’re in orbit, I’ll make sure that the science team gets their priority observations. For example, if someone’s out on a research cruise collecting samples in the open sea, we can time the spacecraft to take pictures overhead which will be a really good data point for them. We’re making sure those scientists are getting what they want and packaging these spacecraft commands in a way that also works with the mission operations schedule.  

Corrine is standing centered in the image with one hand raised into the air. She is on a large plane of warped ground, cooled lava, which is a dark black and grey color. The sky above her is peeking through as blue at the horizon, but is primarily a cloudy gray color.
Corrine Rojas doing field work on Mauna Loa, Hawai’i using orbital data maps to understand the volcanic origins of the Jezero Crater floor on Mars that the Perseverance rover has been investigating. (more: Image Credit: Corrine Rojas

What advice would you give other early career scientists or other people looking to get into science operations or finding their space in… well, space?

I didn’t always see myself working at NASA. I studied political science for a few years before coming into geography and that’s my academic background – modern day geography translated into programming.

But really, what has opened the door to having this as a career, is my love for maps. Creating and reading maps has always been a passion of mine. And that passion translated to creating maps of the surface of the Moon and the geology of Mars through NASA missions. I’m grateful that NASA needs a variety of disciplines to make a mission possible.

NASA has jobs that range from computer programmers like me, to mechanical engineers and scientists, but also writers and photographers. Even finance folks. It takes a lot of different disciplines to make a NASA mission work. And if you find something that you really enjoy, there’s probably going to be a related job that can take you to working on a mission.

Corrine stands to the left of the image, wearing a white clean suit that covers her whole body including torso, arms, and head. She is seen only from the waste up in this picture and is crossing her arms across her chest. She also wears a white mask to cover her nose and mouth. To the right of her is the PACE spacecraft, which takes up a majority of the image. It is primarily a silver color and much of the spacecraft is covered in foil.
A portrait of Corrine Rojas all bunny suited-up in front of the PACE spacecraft a few weeks before it shipped to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for launch. Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Denny Henry

What are you most looking forward to post-launch?

That’s when my job really starts! After the spacecraft is commissioned, we’ll start commanding the sensors to take scientific observations. I’m looking forward to working with the world’s best oceanographers and atmospheric scientists, making sure that they’re getting the data they want. Hopefully we’ll have more answers regarding Earth sciences and climatology studies, especially aerosol studies since we don’t have a lot of that data. All this data will help anywhere from fisheries to disaster management and more. Everyone relying on that data is about to get a firehose of information, and I’m excited to see them dig into it.

Corrine stands centered in the image wearing pale mauve colored leggings, a white workout shirt, a green ball cap, and a brown weightlifting belt. She stands by a weight rack, directly behind the bar with her right hand resting on the black bar. She is taking this picture in a mirror using her cellphone which is in her left hand.
At the gym on center at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center! Image Credit: Corrine Rojas

What is a fun fact about yourself? Something that people might not know about you?

I’m a newbie, but I weightlift pretty consistently. It’s just something that I enjoy doing that takes me away from the screen and into the present moment. I can just focus on the here and now, and my body getting really strong and staying healthy.

What is one catch-all statement describing the importance of PACE?

PACE is going to help us track the heartbeat of ocean, from a few meters below the sea surface all the way up to the top of the atmosphere.

Corrine is standing centered in the image wearing a blue polo. Her hands are raised slightly up and next to her as if she is presenting something with them. Behind her is the PACE spacecraft, large, cube-like, and primarily a silver color. PACE is sitting behind a glass window separating it from where Corrine is standing.
A quick shot in front of the PACE spacecraft after volunteering for a PACE friends and family event. Image Credit: Corrine Rojas

Header image caption: Corrine Rojas during one of her many walks around Washington, D.C. during cherry blossom season. Image Credit: Corrine Rojas

Erica McNamee, Science Writer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA Climate Science Spacecraft Arrives ‘on PACE’ for Launch

Technicians monitor movement as a crane hoists NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) observatory spacecraft after being uncrated on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, at the Astrotech Space Operations Facility near the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Technicians monitor movement as a crane hoists NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) observatory spacecraft after being uncrated on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, at the Astrotech Space Operations Facility near the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

NASA’s PACE spacecraft completed its journey Tuesday, Nov. 14, from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, to the Astrotech Spacecraft Operations facility near the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Engineers and technicians arrived ahead of the spacecraft to prepare ground equipment for offloading and processing before fueling and final encapsulation.

PACE, which stands for Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, and ocean Ecosystem, is targeted to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in early 2024, from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The mission will help clarify how the ocean and atmosphere exchange carbon dioxide, improve upon NASA’s 20-plus years of global satellite observations of ocean biology and atmospheric aerosols, and continue key measurements related to air quality and climate.

The PACE project is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The agency’s Launch Services Program, based at Kennedy Space Center, is responsible for managing launch service for the PACE mission.

Friends & Family Meet PACE

With the towering structure of the spacecraft just behind clear plastic curtains, engineers, scientists, and others who worked on the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem mission recently had the chance to see the result of their hard work.

“Your dad does amazing stuff for us. He goes and puts out fires all the time,” Juli Lander, the PACE deputy project manager, said to a teenager waiting with his family to take a picture in front of the satellite.

The spacecraft and its instruments are the culmination of more than eight years of hard work, late nights, and early mornings, she said, and this was their chance to see the finished product right before it traveled to Florida to prep for launch.

“It’s really important for us to let everyone see the great work that their family members have been doing,” Lander said. “Everybody who’s coming through is very excited, even if they’ve been here before.”

A large group of people stand in the foreground of the image, facing away from the camera. They are facing a large metal chamber - the thermal vacuum chamber - which has several grey, metal tubes on the side. The chamber takes up the full top right corner of the image.
At one of the stops on the PACE Friends and Family Day tour at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, guests saw the thermal vacuum chamber where the spacecraft was tested to ensure it could survive in the harsh environment of space. Image Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer

More than 550 people came to the PACE Friends and Family day Oct. 28, 2023, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where the spacecraft and its Ocean Color Instrument (OCI) were built. They toured the cleanroom where PACE was assembled and tested, including the giant thermal vacuum chamber where it was subjected to the temperature and pressure extremes of space.

They heard from scientists about what insights the satellite will provide about the ocean, atmosphere, and climate, and got to peer through a microscope to see some of the tiny phytoplankton that PACE will study from space.

“We’re showing off the science that we’re doing with PACE,” said Carina Poulin, a scientist and outreach specialist who was helping with hands-on activities during the event. There were puzzles of colorful ocean waters, a PACE-themed card matching game, cultures of green and yellow and pink phytoplankton and more.

The visitors were asking lots of great questions, Poulin said. “They all know someone who works with PACE, so they’re excited.”

Sabrina Sharmin, who started with the PACE team almost seven years ago and is now a systems engineer with OCI, introduced her enthusiastic guests to coworkers, and pointed out highlights of the cleanroom facility.

“This remarkable spacecraft is a result of countless hours of collaborative effort by the entire team, and I am so proud of all of us,” Sharmin said. “It’s a momentous occasion, being able to showcase the project to friends and family.

Header image caption: PACE engineer Sabrina Sharmin, in center in brown shirt, brought friends and family to see the spacecraft at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The anticipation and excitement within our team for launch is unparalleled,” she said. Image Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer

Kate Ramsayer, Strategic Communications Lead for Earth Science Missions at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center