Claire Corlett

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ECOSTRESS – Monitoring Plants from Space – Interview with Dr. Joshua Fisher, JPL

ECOSTRESS – Monitoring Plants from Space – Interview with Dr. Joshua Fisher, JPL

– [Announcer] Welcome to
your online coffee break, where we discuss bite size topics, that inspire, educate, and entertain. Here’s your host, a software innovator, award winning marketer, and
astronomy and space buff, Chuck Fields. – Hello, thank you for joining us today, for your online coffee break. Today I’d like to welcome to our show, my special guest, Dr. Joshua Fisher. Dr. Fisher is a scientist at NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory, as well as the science lead for Ecostress, a mission designed to
study the Earth’s climate. I was fortunate to first meet Dr. Fisher recently at Cape Canaveral
to witness the launch of Ecostress aboard the Spacex CRS-15 resupply mission to the
international space station. Thanks for joining us today Dr. Fisher! – Thank you for having me. – Oh my pleasure. Now Dr. Fisher, I believe Ecostress stands for ecosystem space
born thermal radiometer experiment on space station. – Very nice, you definitely
get a cookie for that. – I love these acronym’s, did
you help come up with that? – Yeah, so, things that
were really good at NASA are coming up with really
convoluted acronyms, and cool visuals, so, yeah,
that’s one part of it. – Well I love it. Now in a nutshell I believe it’s designed, the mission is designed to
measure the temperature of plants to better understand how
much water plants need and how they respond to stress. Can you tell us a little
bit more about that? – Yeah exactly, so, so
the instrument itself, is, it was just launched to
the international space station of which, you saw. – Great launch! – It was a really amazing launch. – Yes it was. – And, it’s attached to the
outside of the space station, looks back at Earth, and
it’s a thermal radiometer. Which means, that it
measures the temperature of the surface of the Earth. And so, you can use that to look at fire, you know, hot things, or volcanoes. What we’re particularly
focused on in this mission, is the temperature of plants. And so, because the instrument is so good, and so accurate and precise, we can get little subtle
differences between plants, in terms of the temperature, which is related to how
much water they have. So, if they have enough water, they’re cycling water
through their leaves, and the water cools themselves down. If they don’t have enough water, then the plants will heat up. Very much the same way
sweat cools us down. If you’re out there running,
and you’re hydrated, the sweat will cool you down. If you don’t have enough water, and you’re not sweating,
then you’ll actually heat up, and that’s actually quite bad for you, and it’s also bad for the plants as well. And so we’re interested in heat stress, water stress, water use, and really as there are more droughts, those temperatures are rising, we wanna know which plants
are gonna die first. Which are are more efficient
with their water, which aren’t. Both in natural ecosystems like forests, which species are more vulnerable when there’s a drought, to death, to fire, as well as our managed
ecosystems and agriculture, which crops use more water than others? Or even within a type of
crop, which variety of crop. Like, let’s say you’re farming lettuce, and you’ve got 11 different varieties of lettuce to choose
from, and you wanna know, which one uses more or less water, because you’re trying
to balance your budget, and conserve water, or maybe there’s not as much water to go around, and so you also wanna know within a crop, which crop variety uses
water, and how much. So, we’ve got a lot of
different interesting uses, when it comes to plants and
water related ecostress. – See I think that’s fantastic. Now, I love the analogy,
I believe you used, is you said we know that doctors learn a lot about their patients health by taking their temperature, and I understand that
same type of diagnosis can occur by studying the
temperature of plants. You had a neat visual down there, where you talked about
how you can actually detect a plant is dying,
before we can visually see it. You know, where, down
here, we look at a plant, oh the leaves are turning brown, well Ecostress I believe
can actually detect hey they’re about to
turn brown, more or less. Is that how that works? – Exactly, right. So, I actually have a
thermal camera over here but, – Oh excellent. – But I don’t wanna waste
your time trying to set it up, – I understand. – But, yeah so, if you imagine
two plants side by side, and they, they’re the same plant, and you water one, and not the other. They still look the same for a while, until the one without water starts to wilt and drop its leaves and die. But we can see that lack of water before it wilts and stresses and dies. We can see it heat up, because
it doesn’t have that water. And so, on our camera we’ll see
a cool plant and a hot plant but to your eyes, you’ll
see just two green plants. And so we can see the unseen, we can see that heat
stress, that water stress, before the plant dies. And yeah, if you’re going to your doctor, you absolutely want your doctor to say, hey I see somethings the matter with you, before you die, right? – That is a good point there,
absolutely, absolutely. Now, so you can detect sort
of potential drought’s then, with Ecostress? – Oh absolutely right. So, if there’s, let’s say we don’t have, you know, we have less
rainfall than normal. Does that mean your plants are gonna die? Not necessarily. If you have less
evaporation out of the soil, then you’re watering your soil, your soil moisture might still be relatively sufficient for the plants. And again, it also depends how
much individual plants need. So, we can actually detect the drought, the drought stress on plants. Which is different than just a rainfall, a decline in rainfall anomaly. We can actually see the rain fall relative to the atmospheric pull of
water away from the landscape. And that is actually what
plants are responding to. Yes, they need water. But if there’s water in the soil, then they’re kind of okay. Also temperature, we also
often think of heat waves, which we just had a massive one in Southern California, this weekend. And we think of temperatures
as very problematic to plants. But again, if they have enough water, they’re able to kind of
cool themselves down. So just rainfall anomalies,
we call rainfall declines, or temperature declines,
isn’t necessarily sufficient to say it’s a drought, in the way that plants are gonna see it. We actually need to see how
much water is being used, and how much is being pulled
out by the atmosphere, dry air, radiation from
the sun, temperature, those all serve to pull
water out of the atmosphere. Like if you’re washing your hands in, you know, public bathroom, and you run it out under
the hot, kind of, fan, that’s evaporating water off your hands. The atmosphere does the same to plants, the hot dry atmosphere will
suck that water out the plants and they will, that’s what causes them to undergo stress and eventual
changes, and death. – Now I understand that there’s something unique about the space stations orbit, that will aid Ecostress
in its measurements. What is so unique about that? – Yeah, so we’re going up on
the international space station which is really interesting. We haven’t heard a lot about
Earth observing missions on the space station
yet, so there’s a lot of, work on the space station, in terms of what the astronauts are
doing, and the experiments. But actually looking back at Earth, they have a really nice advantage point, that we don’t get from
other types of satellites. So most of our satellites
kind of fly over us, over the poles at the
same time, over our heads, every time it’d be like, 10:30
every time, in the morning. And so, those are pretty
good, except that, we’re interested in how
plants are responding over the course of the day. So if there’s water stress, or if there is some sort of afternoon heat, or something that goes on in the day, some plants will shut
down in the afternoon, other plants won’t, and this kinda depends on their evolutionary history. We know this from individual
studies in our back yards, and lab experiments, and things like that, but we don’t know where
this is happening globally. So that is something that we’ll be able to find out from Ecostress, is where and when are
plants shutting down, over the course of the
day, which we don’t know. Now there are other satellites called geo stationary satellites. – Yes. – Those will be over our head all the time, measuring constantly. They don’t have necessarily,
global coverage, but at least for a sort of area, they’ll get that daily cycle. But because of their
orbit, their pixel size tends to be very coarse. And so, if you’ve got come plants shutting down in the afternoon, other plants not shutting down afternoon, within the same pixel, then
you won’t be able to see that, it just looks like one number. And so the space station allows
us to sample over the day, at very fine spacial resolutions, at 70 meter pixel size, which
is about 230 feet either side. So, it can see kind of a big back yard, or a very small plot on a farm,
so really get that detail, where, in a forest, you know, if there’s some species in one area, and other types of trees
species in another, we’ll be able to get that kind of, fine mosaic over the landscape. – And that’s fantastic,
just how sensitive it is. Now, you mentioned this earlier, how you can see more than just how plants respond to heat and water, it can also detect other
phenomena I believe, like fires, volcano’s, even urban heat. Can you tell us more about
those types of events? – Yeah so, I mean it’s, because we’re temperature
measurement, so we can, so like fires obviously is super hot. It would be able to pick that up. But with fires you really
wanna know right away, you don’t wanna be like, oh okay, let’s wait another week
before the next pass. And you also wanna get those small fires, before they become big fires. So for fires, this, our
frequent cadence of Ecostress, and our fine pixel size, will be beneficial to detecting fires, in terms of those characteristics. In terms of volcanoes
also, you know, hot things, and also there’s these
precursors to volcanic eruptions, before it’s lava everywhere,
there’s SO2 that comes out, and that can kinda be hot,
and we can pick that up in our thermal measurements, as well. And then for urban heat, same thing, as our buildings absorb
that heat, and get hot, you know that black asphalt,
just, is scorching in the day, then you walk over at night, and its still kinda radiating that heat that it absorbed in the daytime. We can pick that up, cause we’ll be flying
over at night as well, so we’ll be able to pick up
those night time measurements. And again, because of
our spacial resolution, down to those neighborhood levels, where we can say you know downtown is getting hotter cause
of all that concrete, and you know, the golf
course, or whatever, is staying cooler cause
they’re watering it a lot, so we can, we can pick up
those types of aspects, in terms of urban settings as well. – Wow that’s fascinating. You literally are saving
the planet using Ecostress. Now I believe Ecostress has a one year prime mission, is that correct? – Yeah, so, we have to, I’m actually just, installing the camera now, cause I think we’ll be able to do this without, without it being too awkward. – That’s okay, you are
a true multi-tasker. – Okay. – See I think it’s the,
I think it’s he says, the one year prime mission and I believe, during the NASA TV press conference, I think it’s located on the
Japanese section of the ISS? Did I get that right or wrong? – Here we go. I don’t know if you can see this, – We can, that is so amazing. For those of you who are audio only, we do have this on YouTube, so you can, Dr. Fisher is showing us his
thermal camera of himself, and you can see his fingers, and how, I see the dark blue areas, would that
– Yeah. Well that, so, here’s you,
but that’s just a monitor, so there’s
– Oh my gosh, okay. – There’s my, there’s like my hand being all different temperatures
and things like that. So anyways, so we can pick up these temperature measurements
– That’s fantastic. – And this is just a little
cheap kinda camera on a phone, but you can imagine that
this is getting a lot, – That is incredible! – More sophisticated from space. – Now w- – Anyways, sorry I was
really distracted, you were, – That is okay, I’m visual, and I thought that was so slick, and I actually missed that
down at the conference, when you were taking the
thermal camera around, I actually was right there, so, I think that’s so fascinating! So yeah, what are your prime mission? Do you, when do you
start getting data back, and then what happens after the one year? – Yeah, so, we launched on June 29th, which, and today this interview is taking place on July 9th, so that’s you know, a
little over a week ago. And so, we launched on a Spacex rocket. Elon Musk Spacex, and
Spacex has a contract to resupply the space station with food, other experiments and things like that. And so we went on a Spacex rocket, basically hitched a ride, you
know on the Spacex rocket, and on the rocket, there’s
the dragon payload, and so they launched this thing up, which we saw beautifully,
and then the dragon basically has to rendezvous
with the space station. And the space stations going
thousands of miles per hour, orbiting around the Earth, and the dragon kinda has to keep up
without crashing into it. And they’re basically doing
this dance around the Earth for many days, before
it gets close enough, that it docks to the space station. So it docked to the
space station like about, a few days after the launch. So then, the Canadian robotic
arm on the space station, went into the dragon payload, connected with the Ecostress
instrument, and took it out, and brought it over to the Japanese, experimental module, exposed facility on the space stations JEM. And the Japanese have a robotic arm that connected with us as well, so there was a little hand off, kind of like a, you know like a, a running back getting
it from the quarterback, and then, except you know,
with fewer fumbles hopefully. And then that attached it to the outside of the Japanese module and plugged it in, kind of like, kind of like a thumb drive would plug into a USB port. So there’s these specific dimensions that these instruments
have to be designed to, to plug directly into that
side of the space station, you can’t just make anything up. – Sure. – So, so that occurred. And then, and that occurred very slowly, you know they don’t
wanna mess anything up. So it was kinda like watching
grass grow, in a way, it was just slowly but, it
was very exciting as well. And I put some photos
on my twitter, on that. And then they turn it on very slowly, so the, so it went power on, and then because it’s
the thermal instrument, and temperatures really important to it, one of the important things
is that has to cool down really cold before you can
actually start collecting data. – That makes sense.
– So it has to cool down to like 60 or 65 kelvin, which is like, it’s just very very cold. – Yes. – But that takes a while, cause
we were kinda hot already, and so basically we’re cycling heat out, in this cryo cooler thermal
loop around the space station. Just getting rid of
heat, and cooling down. And then once that happens,
we start collecting, so I think sometime
this week, or next week, we’ll probably have our,
we’ll have something to show so stay tuned. – That’s exciting, that’s exciting. And then the prime year,
it’s just one year long? – So yeah, so, our original
contract with NASA, is to be able to answer our scientific objectives in one year. And so, that is to figure out which plants are more efficient with their water, that’s objective one,
the water use efficiency. We wanna be able to look at
that afternoon shut down, the daily cycle, what we
call the diurnal cycle, all over the world, that’s
objective number two. And we wanna see if we can improve drought estimation in
agricultural settings. – Wow. – And that’s working with our partners from the US department of agriculture, and that’s objective number three. And so we have to
achieve that in one year. But if we’re able to achieve that, the instruments still working, fine, then, then we renegotiate
our contract with NASA to stay on longer. – Wow that’s fantastic! I can’t wait to hear how that goes. – Yeah so hopefully we can just stay on as long as the thing’s working. And hopefully it works a long time, so. – Wow! Now let’s geek out for a second, when I met you at Kennedy Space Center, you briefly mentioned the
programming involved in Ecostress. Now, I’m a programmer, several
of our listeners are too. Can you elaborate a little bit, tell us a little bit more
about the programming? – Yeah, I mean, so, there’s,
there’s a lot of engineering, you know, as you can
imagine, to build this thing, but there’s also a lot of
software, that’s required. Not only to command the instrument, and deal with the data down links, but also to translate
the light measurements into plant water use, and
temperatures, and drought. And so, that’s the side I work on more, on the science side, and as
the science lead of Ecostress, is to be able to translate
those measurements, into meaningful data,
that scientists can use to understand the planet. And so usually what happens is that, the scientists are not really well trained in computer programming, we code because, it’s a means to get something done, but we’re not elegant programmers, and we usually code in, you know, it depends on the generation,
on your generation, so like, my generation was
like a matlab generation, so we do a lot of matlab, a lot of people do stuff in IDL. Now the younger generations
doing a lot more python. And so, so I had a lot of code
that I’d written in matlab it was very clunky, not
very optimized or efficient. And then we translated that into python, which is a little bit
more efficient, faster, you can do more with it. And that was just to run
a lot of these test case using simulated data, make
sure everything’s working well. But then, into the actual mission
operations on our servers, that gets translated into
C++ a compiled language, to be able to run things, you
know, faster, more efficiently because now we’re processing
a tremendous amount of data. – I bet. – And everyday, right, it’s not just I’m a scientist I wanna go in
and analyze a year of data, you know, for this one area. Now we gotta do everything
fast, and efficiently. So that goes all, that
code goes into larger software architectures that link up with the operational aspects, in
terms of cron job type things and getting ancillary data sets, as well as carrying metadata
and quality flags through, and tracking any version
changes in our code, and eventually getting
it out to the public, in a way that’s traceable, if
we’ve done anything on the way or if there any bugs or
anything that we found out about that we, you know, we cleaned up, just so the users know what
to expect in their data. So that’s kind of at a top
level view of the coding without getting into much detail, but it’s thousands upon
thousands of lines of code. – I’m sure it is. Well I find that fascinating, and I appreciate you sharing that with me. What else do you think the general public should know about Ecostress
and our environment? – So, oh gosh, there’s a
ton to talk about Ecostress. Let me see, let’s see, so. We’ve got some fact sheets,
we got a website for one, in which you can get all
sorts of cool images, and videos and fact sheets
and things like that, but, – I think that website
is is that correct? – That’s right, yeah. – Okay, excellent. I’ll definitely put that in the
show notes for our listeners so they can go there and. – Yeah I mean, it’s, what we’re really excited about, we were also able to do
this relatively cheaply, relative to other NASA missions, but in part is is because we had already been developing the instrument at JPL, at the jet propulsion laboratory, in anticipation of doing these missions, so we had a lot built already. But it was also one of the fastest missions to get up to space. We were selected by NASA headquarters in, I think 2014. It’s 2018 now, so to get
up to space in four years, is kind of unheard of – Really? – with NASA missions. Usually it takes like
a decade uh, to space. And we were able to do it pretty cheaply, but also because a lot of
things were already paid for. Like the Spacex rocket cargo resupply, we didn’t have to pay
for on the mission side. That was already paid for
on the space station side. And of course we didn’t have
to pay for the space station that was already built. So there were things that
made our mission costs on Ecostress a lot
cheaper than if we had to pay for our own ride to space, pay for a satellite to be built. A ridge, things were already in place, which is I think what the American public and congress is looking for, in terms of being able
to be more efficient with our resources, and
leverage the investment, that we’ve made as
Americans into our assets, and to feed back to society, and to be able to help us
manage our food and water, and natural ecosystems, and then continue to
understand our planet, and advanced technology, and have extended uses in
terms of other applications. I know that you have a lot
of listeners in Indiana, cause you’re based out of Indiana, and I do a lot of work in Indiana as well, even though I’m based in California, – Oh really? – I have a project in Bloomington, with some collaborators out there, so I get out to Bloomington now and then. – Excellent. – And I love it, I
absolutely look forward to just being emersed in the
ecosystems of Indiana. And we’re looking at,
there’s interesting grading to forest in Indiana where, some trees are, have this below
ground symbiosis with fungi, where the fungi go out and like
get nutrients for the trees and so there’s two types of fungi, and the trees will be associated
with one or the other. And in Indiana, there’s
this gradient of two fungi and tress across, so we’re kinda studying the nutrient dynamics
of course in Indiana, and that’s been pretty great. – Oh that’s fantastic to hear! I’d love to see you next time
you’re in the Indiana area, we’re certainly not too
far from Bloomington. Dr. Fisher I think Ecostress is wonderful, I wanna congratulate you and your team, for putting together
such an awesome mission. I wish you the best of
luck as the data comes in, and really appreciate taking time out of your schedule to join us today, thank you so much. – Sure anytime! And hopefully you in podcast world will find it interesting as well. – Absolutely, thank you so much. – Thank you. – [Announcer] Online coffee break. – Wow Ecostress is such an important and amazing mission for us. To imagine that we’re going to space to better understand just
the climate here on Earth, and I think these measurements are just gonna be wonderfully impactful for just our future. They can help us in so many ways, and it’s people like Dr. Fisher and his team that are making it happen. And I just wanna thank
him for joining us today. I wanna thank you, our
listeners, for tuning in today. If you’d like to find
out more about Ecostress, you can again visit their website at I wanna thank you for listening today, for your online coffee break. If you’d like to comment on today’s topic, visit us at or on You could also leave us a comment, by calling us at (317)-862-4700 We may even play it on the air. You can also follow us at Be sure to rate us or share
this episode with your friends. Thanks again for listening,
see you next time, god bless.

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