People of PACE: Kirk Knobelspiesse Keeps His Eyes on the Skies

Kirk Knobelspiesse is an atmospheric scientist and the project science team polarimeter lead for PACE at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. He is also the polarimeter instrument scientist for the Atmosphere Observing System (AOS) constellation.

A man stands centered in the image standing straight with his arms held out on either side of him. He is standing on a tan sand dune. The sky behind him is a light blue and gray color.
Kirk Knobelspiesse hiking sand dunes near Swakopmund, Namibia, during the ORACLEs field campaign. Image Credit: Michal Segal-Rozenhaimer

What is your favorite atmospheric or ocean related book or movie?

There was a series on Netflix called “Connected” that had an episode called “Dust.” The general idea is that everything in the world is connected, so it started with dust that was generated in the Sahara Desert, specifically the Bodélé Depression. And that dust – which is really from a dry lakebed – gets lofted into the atmosphere and goes out over the oceans, and in the process interacts with clouds and potentially fertilizes the ocean. That dust makes it all the way to the Amazon basin where it may also be an important source of nutrients.

What is your background?

I am a photographer who got really into imaging of all kinds, which led me to remote sensing. I ended up doing work on remote sensing of Earth from space and worked on SeaWiFs, which was an early ocean color mission. I decided I need to go back to grad school and get a more quantitative education, so I got an applied math degree at Columbia University.

What are you most looking forward to during launch?

Earlier in my career I worked on a satellite that had a launch failure (Glory in 2011). So, during launch, I am going to shut myself in a closet and not learn any news until somebody tells me it’s all over. Because it makes me so nervous. A lot of people want to go and see the launch and that kind of thing. Not me, I’m going to stay away. Somebody will tell me when it’s all over.

What are you most looking forward to post-launch?

A man is sitting at a desk in an office. He is facing the camera and appears to be taking a selfie. He takes up the right side of the image. The left side of the image shows a computer screen and a water bottle, which the man is holding. In the background, the office door, a coat rack, and part of a whiteboard can be seen.
Kirk Knobelspiesse in his office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Image Credit: Kirk Knobelspiesse

I have a list of all the Science and Nature papers we’re hoping to write with PACE data. It’s ambitious, a little bit. But there are new types of observations that we will be making, that no other satellite will have done so far, at least not at a global scale. One aspect I’m interested in is just exploring the data, looking for basic things that will be useful for our understanding of aerosols and clouds and the climate in general.

I have some pet projects that I’ve always been interested in, for example a specific situation when aerosols are lofted above clouds. Aerosols are generally something that cools the climate because they reflect light. But if you have, say, a dark smoke aerosol on top of the cloud, it actually warms the climate, because it absorbs some of the energy that would have otherwise been reflected into space. So that’s something we’ll be able to do with PACE that we don’t really have great observations of now.

What is your favorite color and why?

I have a 10-year-old daughter, and favorite colors are very important to her and her friends. They’re always asking me what my favorite color is, and I say I can never answer them because how can you like one color without liking all the others?

Do you have a favorite type of cloud or weird atmospheric phenomena?

There’s also an optical phenomenon called glory. If you’re floating above a cloud and the Sun is behind, you look down at your shadow and you will see your shadow with a glory around it, which is like a circular rainbow around yourself. That’s one of my favorite optical phenomena.

What’s a fun fact about yourself? Something that a lot of people might not know about you?

A man takes up the left side of the image. He is walking towards the camera. He wears a neon yellow vest and is holding onto a large, green gas canister, which is rolling behind him. In the background of the image, a large plane sits on a runway with the nose of the plane facing the left of the image and the tail of the plane, featuring a NASA logo, on the right side. The plane has a stairway connected to the door.
Kirk Knobelspiesse working on the NASA P-3 during the ORACLES field campaign in São Tomé, São Tomé and Príncipe. Image Credit: Andrzej Wasilewski

I’ve been to latitude zero, longitude zero, the point in the South Atlantic Ocean where the equator and prime meridian intersect. It was part of the ORACLES field campaign. There’s nothing special there. It’s just ocean – and I don’t mean to offend my oceanographer friends by saying it’s nothing special – but there was no pillar of fire or something like that.

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists looking to get where you are today?

Don’t pigeonhole yourself into one discipline or one topic of study. Not just computer science or physics or oceanography. They’re human constructs, sociological constructs, and they don’t have anything to do with nature, other than how we have organized ourselves. A lot of where I’ve found interesting and productive things to do have been at the boundary between disciplines, or learning from one discipline and applying that approach to another discipline. So, don’t tell yourself, “I can’t do something because I’m not trained to do that.” You can learn and you can train yourself, and don’t be afraid to go out on a limb and do something you don’t really know how to do.

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

We will be making use of things that people cannot see – the nature of light – to understand things that we can’t otherwise observe.

Header image caption: Kirk Knobelspiesse hiking at Rachel Carson Conservation Park in Brookeville, Md. Image Credit: Barbara Balestra 

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

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.