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.

The Journey of a Carbon Atom: From Space, NASA’s PACE Mission Detects Carbon in the Sky, Land, and Sea

Whether in plants or animals, greenhouse gases or smoke, carbon atoms exist in various compounds as they move through a multitude of pathways within Earth’s system. That’s why NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission – scheduled to launch in January 2024 – was designed to peer down at Earth from space to see those many forms of carbon in a way no other satellite has done before by measuring colors not yet seen from the vantage point of space.

“PACE is standing on the shoulders of some giants, but previous and current satellites are limited in how many colors of the rainbow they can actually see,” said Jeremy Werdell, project scientist for the PACE mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Although one of the primary goals of the mission is to measure the colors on the ocean surface, in the 420 miles (676.5 kilometers) between PACE in orbit and sea level are parts of the complex carbon web that the satellite will also be able to monitor.

The connection between major wildfires and the subsequent explosion of phytoplankton production is an example of the events NASA’s upcoming Plankton, Aerosols, Clouds, and ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission will help investigate. PACE’s suite of instruments will allow scientists to get a clearer picture of carbon as it links land use and fires, atmospheric aerosols and marine communities. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center


From PACE’s location in space, one of the nearest forms of carbon to detect could be the wispy plumes of smoke and ash rising into the atmosphere from fires. Carbon is a key building block of much life on Earth, including plant life. When burned, the vegetation’s carbon-based molecules transform into other compounds, some of which end up as ash in these plumes.

The instruments on PACE will be able to monitor these smoky clouds, as well as other atmospheric aerosol particles, measuring their characteristics including the relative amount of smoke in different places. Combinations of these measurements made by PACE’s two companion polarimeter instruments, SPEXone and the Hyper-Angular Rainbow Polarimeter-2 (HARP2), and the detailed color measurements of the smoke made by the Ocean Color Instrument (OCI) will also help scientists identify what was burnt.

“Each instrument brings something different,” said Andy Sayer, PACE’s project science lead for atmospheres at NASA Goddard. “Putting them all together though, you’re getting the most information.” Sayer is also a senior research scientist for the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

These measurements help scientists understand more about the balance between the incoming energy from the Sun, the outgoing energy from Earth, and where it may be absorbed in between by things in the atmosphere like these smoke plumes. Even at a local level, PACE can provide information about how smoke affects air quality, impacting communities that may be near fires.


Peering through the smoke particles and other aerosols, PACE can also tell us about the health of terrestrial plants and trees. Even after a devastating wildfire, fresh green plant life begins to grow and thrive. With more spectral bands and colors to see from the upcoming satellite, scientists will be able to understand what kinds of plants are recovering from fires over the years.

“In a time where we’re experiencing unprecedented climate change, we need to be able to understand how global vegetation responds to its environment,” said Fred Huemmrich, research associate professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a member of the PACE science and applications team.

PACE will be able to monitor the different shades of colors in vegetation, and plant color can be an indicator of health. Just as house plants begin to fade to yellow if they haven’t been watered enough, plant life around the globe changes color as it experiences stress. Healthy plants take up carbon in the form of carbon dioxide as part of photosynthesis, while unhealthy plants that can’t complete photosynthesis leave the carbon dioxide roaming around the atmosphere. Given that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, these measurements also play a significant role in understanding climate change in greater detail.

By measuring a full spectrum of color, PACE will view tiny changes in pigment to detect how plants are responding to stressors, helping scientists learn whether they are utilizing the surrounding carbon or not. Previously, these colors were primarily viewed in field studies of specific areas. Stressors like droughts were inferred using weather data, but covering large expanses was difficult.

“For the first time, we’ll really be able to look at changes in the health of plants over the globe,” Huemmrich said. “It will dramatically improve our understanding of how ecosystems function and how they respond to stress.”


From plants on land to organisms in the ocean, PACE will view the expanses of water on Earth to measure phytoplankton – the P in its name. With its ability to measure a wide spectrum of colors, PACE will now not only be able to see more across the surface of the ocean but will also help scientists differentiate between phytoplankton species.

“It’s like you were making a painting with really coarse brushes, and now you have thin, fine brushes that help explain so much more in greater detail,” said Ivona Cetinić, an oceanographer in the Ocean Ecology Lab at NASA Goddard.

Phytoplankton, small organisms that live on the surface of the ocean, play a critical role in the food chain and the global carbon cycle. Each type of phytoplankton provides a different pathway in that expansive web of routes that carbon can take, all depending on the characteristics of the plankton. One pathway may lead to the carbon becoming food for a larger species, while another may lead to carbon becoming waste, sinking deeper into the ocean.

Scientists conducting field work have found that types of phytoplankton vary slightly in color and have identified these phytoplankton on small scales. PACE’s ability to measure a full spectrum of color will help scientists tell the difference between phytoplankton on a global scale by seeing more of these colors, deepening the understanding of carbon pathways and quantities.

Though one of PACE’s key goals is to view the ocean, its line of sight looks over the atmosphere and land as well. With these expansive observations, and the massive quantities of data collected, PACE provides the ability to see in what ways the atmosphere, land, and ocean are connected, including with the complex web of carbon pathways. 

“I’m energized for this opportunity for discovery that this observatory is offering,” Werdell said. “I have every expectation the world is going to do great things with these data.”

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