Text Size

Petach's Passion for the Unknown
Who Are NASA's Earth Explorers?

The elementary school student wondering how El Niño will affect tomorrow's weather. The scientist studying connections between ozone and climate change. And the farmer using satellite pictures to keep track of crops. All of these people are Earth Explorers -- they are all curious about the Earth system. This series will introduce you to NASA Earth Explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

Tanya Petach sits on a raft in a river

Tanya Petach thrives on seeking answers to unanswered questions in Earth and space science. Image Credit: NASA

View Larger Image

Why do the trees lose their leaves? Why does that rock have holes in it? These are the kind of questions Tanya Petach (PEE'-tack) asked when she was a kid. And someone always seemed to have an answer.

Sometimes it was a parent or teacher that had the answer. (Sometimes it was both -- her mom is a science teacher!). Other times it was a sibling or friend.

As she grew older, Petach asked harder questions: Why is this leaf green and that one purple? How does the magma below tectonic plates change as they crash together? But still, there were answers.

"Somebody had ... been curious before me and developed a perfectly sound response," Petach said. "It wasn't until I stumbled onto newer topics with fewer answers that my passion for science was truly ignited."

One of the first such topics was a pine bark beetle outbreak in Colorado. Petach and her sister, Anika, used satellite images to study the outbreak. The images helped them find which land areas were at greater risk for attack by pine bark beetles. They also used the images to track how two forest areas reacted to pine beetle repellent. The project won an award at the state science fair when Petach was in ninth grade.

What did Petach enjoy most about the project? She liked trying to answer questions that had not been answered before. "For once in my life, there were no answers," Petach said. "The passion that drives me into science ... is a passion for the unknown."

More recently, Petach used images from NASA's Landsat satellite to study the Colorado River's high salt levels. Water that is too salty can damage soil and destroy plants. Petach used the images and direct water measurements to find sources of salt that flow into the river. She also explored ways to reduce the amount of salt in the river.

"I became fascinated with these rivers while hiking on the Colorado Plateau as a young child," Petach said.

Her study earned first place in the 2010 Thacher Environmental Research Contest. The contest is held by the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies. It awards students in grades 9-12 who show the best use of satellites and other tools to study Earth. She also won an award at the 2010 Intel International Science & Engineering Fair with a related project.

Petach's interest in science is not limited to this planet. She also is part of a NASA program that teams scientists with teachers and their students. Together, the teams use data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope to search for "active galaxies." These galaxies are thought to have massive black holes at their center.

Petach starts her senior year in high school this fall. She hopes to continue her search for answers to unanswered questions about Earth and space.

Ancient Chinese mapmakers "drew dragons where their knowledge of the land ended," Petach said. "My passion lies in the dragons of science. And, luckily, there is an infinite supply."

Related Resources:
> Spitzer Space Telescope
> Cool Cosmos   →
> NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program (NITARP)   →
> Thacher Environmental Research Contest   →
> Video: Intel ISEF 2009: Tanya Petach   →
> Meet the Next Earth Explorers

Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies