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Masterpiece of the Sky
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.

Graeme Stephens stands in front of a painting of large white clouds in a pale blue sky
Image above: Artist and scientist Graeme Stephens stands with some of his artwork. Credit: William Cotton
To some people, clouds are what they learn about in science class. Clouds are water droplets in the sky. They block out the sun. They make rain and snow.

Others look at clouds and see art. They see fluffy shapes that are white and gray. They see bright clouds and dark clouds. And they see clouds that cast shadows.

When Graeme Stephens looks at clouds, he sees both science and art.

Graeme is a scientist. He's in charge of CloudSat. CloudSat is a NASA satellite. It will soon be launched into space and will orbit the Earth. It will look down at Earth and study clouds.

Graeme is also an artist. He likes to paint pictures of clouds. His pictures are colorful. They show clouds, the sky, mountains and rivers. Graeme says, "Art and science have much in common." He says they are both ways to show what the world is like.

Did you know that clouds are named for how they look? Luke Howard was the first to name clouds. He did this in 1802. That's more than 200 years ago!

A painting of wispy clouds in a red, orange and blue sky
Image above: Cirrus at Sunset, by Graeme Stephens. Credit: Chris Chrissotimos
He used Latin words to name clouds. He used words such as "cumulus" and "cirrus." Cumulus means "pile." Cumulus clouds look like piles of cotton balls. Cirrus means "curl of hair." Cirrus clouds look like wispy curls of hair.

Scientists have a lot of questions about clouds. They want to know how much sunlight they block. They want to know how many clouds make rain and snow. And they want to know what would happen to clouds if the Earth got warmer.

CloudSat will help answer these questions. It's different from other satellites. Most satellites can only see the outside of clouds. Cloudsat can see what's happening on the inside. It can see clouds, rain, snow and ice at the same time.

Graeme says all clouds are important. That's true in both science and art, he says. High or low, thick or thin -- they all affect our weather. And they all have a place in his paintings.

What do you see when you look at clouds? Do you see an important part of science? Or do you see a pretty picture? Guess what? It's okay to see both.

See previous Earth Explorers articles:
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Related Resources
CloudSat Art Gallery
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Cloud Match Game
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Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies