Stephen Merkowitz - Past, Present, and Future - Tracking Changes on Earth
Space Geodesy Project Manager Stephen M. Merkowitz helps the world understand where things are, where they’ve been, and where they’re going.
Space Geodesy Project Manager
Formal Job Classification:
Code 690.2, Space Geodesy Systems Project Office, Planetary Science Division, Science and Exploration Directorate
What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? What is the most exciting part about your job?
I now lead the Space Geodesy Project that is developing and building the next generation geodetic systems. Space geodesy is the science of positioning–where things are, where they’ve been, and where they’re going. Our project is building the ground systems that make these precision measurements which we use to understand how Earth’s shape, orientation, and gravity change over time.
One of the systems we use is the most modern commercially available GPS system in the world. The GPS navigator in your car is a receiver linked to a satellite system. At Goddard, we use a much more precise receiver, which uses the same satellite system as well as several others. The receiver in your car and the powerful one here both provide the same thing; namely, positioning data.
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Photo of Stephen Merkowitz. Credit: NASA/W. Hrybyk
Our coolest tool is the Satellite Laser Ranging System. We shoot laser beams up at satellites, the laser beams bounce off the satellites, and then we receive the reflected light. We are then able to measure the distance between the ground system and the satellite, which tells us the precision orbit of the satellite and its location. Some of our laser beams are quite powerful so we must be mindful of any nearby aircraft. Although the beams are not so powerful that they could damage an aircraft, they could easily startle a pilot.
We partner with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and we’re also part of a larger, international community. In addition to our United States stations, we have ground stations in Tahiti, South Africa, Australia, Brazil, and Peru. Our international partners help staff these stations with people from their own countries.
What is the coolest thing you’ve ever done at Goddard?
In 2007, I participated in an experiment to communicate via lasers with the MESSENGER spacecraft when it was near Venus. We shot lasers from our ground telescope here at Goddard all the way to Venus when was about 70 million miles from Earth. Although we were not quite successful, we had a lot of fun trying.
What makes Goddard a great place to work?
I love the spirit of collaboration. The people here are great at working in teams. I think it is because people love their jobs, are interested in what they are doing, and are always willing to help out with something new.
What other interesting positions have you held?
I recently returned to Goddard. From 2010 to 2011, I was the Assistant Director for the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters. Prior to that, from 2009 to 2010, I was the Senior Policy Analyst for Physical Science and Engineering at the Office of Science and Technology at the White House.
Is there something surprising about you, your hobbies?
I am an Assistant Scoutmaster for the Boy Scout troop that includes my son. I love going camping and teaching the boys outdoor skills. My daughter and wife also love to camp.
Do you have a favorite author?
My favorite author is Kurt Vonnegut because of his humorous mix of satire and science fiction. I especially enjoyed his novel “Cat’s Cradle.”
› Profile Video of Stephen Merkowitz on YouTube
› Space Geodesy Project website
› More Conversations With Goddard
Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD