Suggested Searches

Only on Earth

Season 1Apr 12, 2020

When you think of NASA, you might think of all the incredible mysteries of outer space. But we’re also pretty invested in another very special place … our home. In this episode, join us as we celebrate all the ways NASA keeps an eye on our home planet.

NASA's Curious Universe

Introducing NASA’s Curious Universe

Our universe is a wild and wonderful place. Join NASA astronauts, scientists and engineers on a new adventure each week — all you need is your curiosity. Visit the Amazon rainforest, explore faraway galaxies and dive into our astronaut training pool. First-time space explorers welcome.

About the Episode

When you think of NASA, you might think of all the incredible mysteries of outer space. But we’re also pretty invested in another very special place… our home. In this episode, join us as we celebrate all the ways NASA keeps an eye on our home planet.



[Noises from the AMAZON RAINFOREST: Birds Calling, Insects Singing, other sounds throughout Doug Speaking]

DOUG MORTON: One of my favorite places on Earth is one of the most beautiful parts of the Amazon basin that I’ve ever had the privilege of visiting. There’s a national forest right next to the Tapajos river and it’s a place we’ve long studied in the central Brazilian Amazon. Inside the national forest, we’ve built a tower that allows you to walk up 150 feet into the air. As you walk the steps of this metal tower, you finally step out into the sunlight and the top of the canopy, you’re surrounded by an ocean of green. And, in every direction you look, you’re seeing the vivid colors of the tropical rainforest canopy. It’s really striking to me to be able to feel so immersed in that environment from the forest floor all the way to the canopy… And if you’re sitting there at sunset when the macaws are coming into roost and the monkeys are making their last calls for friends or food.

[Bump Music: Under Offer by Yelland Brown]

NASA's Curious Universe

DOUG MORTON: It’s a really peaceful and alive place…

DOUG MORTON:…That just reminds us that there are fascinating things yet to discover on our planet.

[music continues]

PADI BOYD/HOST: Welcome to NASA’s Curious Universe. Our universe is a wild and wonderful place, and in this podcast, NASA is your tour guide…

Scientist Montage (Multiple Voices):

I’m a research scientist

Earth scientist…

Project scientist…


PADI BOYD/HOST: When you think of NASA, you might think of all the incredible mysteries of outer space. We’re also pretty invested in another very special place…

PADI BOYD/HOST: I’m Padi Boyd, and, in this episode, join me on an exploration of one of the most fascinating places in the solar system… our home.

PADI BOYD/HOST:This April is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and we’re discussing how NASA keeps an eye on our home planet.

DOUG MORTON: Sometimes here at NASA, we like to say that every day is Earth Day.

PADI BOYD/HOST: That’s Doug Morton, he’s one of the many Earth scientists at NASA.

DOUG MORTON: Studying our home planet has always been a really important part of NASA’s mission. NASA has so many different ways to study our planet and as a scientist it’s my job to think about which of those different measurements are important for the questions I’d like to look at.

PADI BOYD/HOST: Think of all the amazing parts of our planet. Earth is home to volcanoes, deep oceans, sprawling deserts, and growing cities. And… It’s the only planet that can sustain life.That’s a lot to keep track of, and everything is connected. NASA’s Earth scientists work to monitor and measure these systems so we can better understand how our home planet functions, and how it’s changing.

DOUG MORTON: NASA satellite data records really tell the story of our changing planet. In the last 30 years, we’ve watched the polar ice caps shrink. We’ve actually been able to estimate the amount of water that’s been lost from glaciers and ice sheets by weighing water from space… We’ve been able to track changes in forests, from natural disturbances like hurricanes or wildfires or the expansion of agriculture that’s shifted production of grains and crops from places like the Midwest of the United States… to the frontier of the Amazon basin. We’ve been able to track changes in our atmosphere that relate to how volcanoes put sulfate particles high into the stratosphere, or how the ozone hole has actually been shrinking over the time record of our satellite data. Each of these scientific discoveries really depends on having a knowledge of our home planet as well as the information and the regular, carefully calibrated and collected measurements we take from space to track those changes over time…

PADI BOYD/HOST: Those carefully calibrated measurements can help scientists like Doug gather information about our planet and predict patterns for the future.

DOUG MORTON: From space, NASA has a really unique role to play in terms of how we understand our home planet. Our scientists have designed instruments to be able to take measurements of our atmosphere, our oceans, ice cover and vegetation, and as we put those pieces of the puzzle together, we’re able to look at our entire earth as a system and all of its complexity.

PADI BOYD/HOST: NASA has a global view of living ecosystems, both on land and in the sea… something made possible by satellites.

PADI BOYD/HOST: With that view, we can see the effects of our changing planet on the life cycles of things like forests and plants.

PADI BOYD/HOST: We can even track wildfires outbreaks in remote areas, sometimes before first responders on the ground.

PADI BOYD/HOST: NASA Earth scientists study all sorts of things.

DOUG MORTON: One of my areas of research is how wildfires are changing our planet… Really, someplace on earth is always on fire. And our NASA satellites are often the first to detect those fires and of course to track their changes. What do those fires mean for people living in communities close to the fire? Where does the smoke from those fires go and how might it impact people living in cities far away, as well as the greenhouse gases that build up in our atmosphere…

PADI BOYD/HOST: We can understand a lot about Earth from space. We can use scientific instruments to help us learn about things like air pollution.

PADI BOYD/HOST: Annmarie Eldering, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, works on one of those tools…

ANNMARIE ELDERING: A lot of folks know about the NASA work focused on solar system and Mars and planets and they, they don’t realize how much we’re doing about our home planet. Sometimes folks forget that NASA does a lot of Earth science and I think, uh, the international space station has been flying around our earth for quite some time, but people maybe don’t know too much about what’s going on up there.

PADI BOYD/HOST: Before she came to NASA to work as an Earth scientist, Annmarie wanted to be an engineer.

ANNMARIE ELDERING: It’s only when I came out to Los Angeles and saw the beautiful smog that was here in the 1980s did I realize, you know what air pollution is my calling. It felt exciting because it was a tangible problem I could see and the questions we were going to answer were actually going to make an impact.

Two or three things that are most critical to the work that we do. And one of those is the measurements from our instrument, from OCO3. What we look at is we see that sunlight is gone through the Earth’s atmosphere, reflected off of the earth surface and then comes back to our instrument. And so we measure this amount of light and every molecule in the world interacts with light in a very unique way. So if you measure the light really carefully, you can learn about how much carbon dioxide was in the atmosphere…

PADI BOYD/HOST: With this technology, scientists can get a deeper look at complex gas mixtures and particles that could be harmful to human health. They can figure out the sources of dangerous air quality and how to improve it.

Scientists aren’t just interested in surveilling the planet. They want to be able to use the information gathered to look towards the future.

ANNMARIE ELDERING: When we think about our earth and our, the climate of earth and we, we know that we’ve see signs that the climate is changing, but one of the things that’s been difficult to do is really predict well what it will be like in 20, 40 or 20, 50. So in my mind, when we’re thinking about the kids today and what the world’s going to be like for them, we want to have some more information to understand that better. And the data we collect is going to help us understand how carbon dioxide flows through the plants and the ocean and the atmosphere. And when we understand more about how it’s moving around, we’ll be able to tell you, about more precisely, what 2050 might be like.

PADI BOYD/HOST: Understanding Earth gives us the means to better protect it. NASA scientists travel to some of the most dynamic places on our planet to bring back information that helps us understand Earth. And in turn, that information helps us understand our whole universe.

The Earth appearing over the horizon of the Moon.

DOUG MORTON: Some of the measurements we can make from space are incredibly valuable. But many other measurements have to be taken on the ground…

DOUG MORTON:…NASA scientists, today, are actually spread all over the world. We have a team of people out studying snow in the high mountains in Colorado. We’re about to send off a team to the mud flats on the South side of the Everglades national park to understand how mangroves that were damaged by hurricane Irma have recovered in the last two years. We’re sending teams of people to Africa to understand how dust that blows from Africa makes its way all the way around the globe and fertilizes places as far away as the Amazon…

DOUG MORTON: My first trip into the Amazon, I remember sort of being overwhelmed, not just by the kind of emotion of arriving finally at the forest frontier, but also kind of the activity..

DOUG MORTON: As you step into the forest, you’re struck by the fact that the forest environment is, it’s cooler, it’s more humid and it’s alive with sounds. You get the chorus and calls of birds and primates, frogs and other species that just remind you that you’re stepping into a world that has thousands and thousands of species, many of which we’ve not even discovered or described…

DOUG MORTON: It’s a real sense of awe I think that we find in the natural world, and there are many different places you can find it.

DOUG MORTON: And so, we’re in the field with our colleagues making measurements of trees, mangrove roots, of soils and their changes and listening for sounds… because sounds are another kind of remote sensing that we can make in the location that tells us something unique and different from what we can learn from space..

DOUG MORTON:NASA scientists are working really across the globe and we’re using a number of different tools to study our planet and how it’s changing…

PADI BOYD/HOST: At NASA, there are actually entire divisions and missions completely dedicated to Earth science! From wildfires to sea level rise, there’s a lot to keep an eye on.

PADI BOYD/HOST: The data that NASA collects makes a record of our home.

DOUG MORTON: One of the exciting things of working here at NASA is that we have a long record of satellite observations and that actually allows us to go back in time. So when we think about the ways in which we’re studying our planet and its changes, my first thought is we can begin in the 70s or the 80s and start to step forward in time until the present. And that’s a really powerful way to look at our planet. And one of the things I think that’s a really important foundation for a lot of the work we do going forward is that we do have this long time series of measurements, ice cover of vegetation of land use and agriculture changes in oceans and atmosphere properties…

DOUG MORTON: And that long time series really is the basis on which we’re understanding the subtle but important changes in our planet

PADI BOYD/HOST: Before satellites, we knew virtually nothing about the huge ice caps of Earth. Now, they’ve been mapped in incredible detail over several decades. We know more about why Arctic sea ice is shrinking, and the loss of water from the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. These are both things that are a major cause for sea level rise and we’ve learned that based on a long record of data.

DOUG MORTON: Over the years as we’ve learned to better understand our home planet and to create the kinds of instruments and imaging tools that allow us to take pictures from space of our home planet every day, often more than once per day. We’ve built really important connections with the farming community with wildfire and disaster response communities and a number of other applications that really depend on having information in near real time to respond to ongoing changes. Whether you’re a farmer trying to understand whether you need to irrigate or fertilize your field or you’re a firefighter trying to figure out where the next blaze has started and how you’re going to respond to protect a community in the Hills of California. That’s where the information that comes in from our satellites today is so valuable for making decisions today. And of course, every day of observations continues our long data record of observations that helps put today’s changes in the context of the past…

[Musical Pause]

PADI BOYD/HOST: Doug and Annmarie are just two of the many Earth scientists who study our planet each day and monitor its changes…

DOUG MORTON:It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of many of the recent changes. Someone who studies wildfire, we’re right in the mix of that emotional swirl of wanting to help people in need of wanting to understand the changes and as well, unable to ignore the consequences of fires, whether they’re happening in Australia, the Amazon or Alaska. Every year from space, we map more than a million large wildfires. Every one of those wildfires is important to a community and so it doesn’t have to be the world’s biggest, fastest, hottest or most extreme fire to be important. I think that’s something we always try to keep in perspective, but there are days when it’s difficult. It’s a lot to manage… the emotions of the fact that those million wildfires are doing damage to communities, are changing air quality for people near and far and are part of the way in which our planet is responding to warming and drying conditions…

ANNMARIE ELDERING:You know, by nature, I’m actually a fairly optimistic person. I always somehow manage to find a way to think there’s an opportunity for change, an opportunity to advance and that’s the road we’re going to take. Certainly when you study things like climate and air pollution, you can see the change over time and there’s some things that we see improving and there’s some things that aren’t really improving. But I feel people are engaged in these questions. They’re thinking about the choices they make and the impact it has. So I remain optimistic that people want to learn, they want to understand and they want to make a good decision in the big picture.

DOUG MORTON:And I think it’s important to remember that there are scientists, uh, at NASA and really across the world whose primary goal is to keep tabs on what’s happening on earth every day. It’s exciting to have a momentous occasion, like the 50th celebration of Earth Day. I think to really look back at how much we’ve learned over those 50 years and how much we have yet to do in terms of our collective action in safeguarding our home planet…

DOUG MORTON: It’s really exciting to think about what we’ll learn and do over the next 10, 20 or 50 years. In a way, it’s almost impossible to imagine. And I think that’s the exciting part about working at a place like NASA, where we’re always thinking about the future… and where the possibilities seem pretty endless.


PADI BOYD/HOST: Earth is a truly incredible place.. and seeing our planet from space gave us a new appreciation of it.

PADI BOYD/HOST:In 1968, astronauts on board Apollo 8 were orbiting our Moon when they spotted something incredible on the horizon…

ASTRONAUT BILL ANDERS: Oh my god, look at that picture over there!

PADI BOYD/HOST: A bright blue marble rising over the dusty lunar surface…

[Audio of Bill Anders in Apollo 8 talking about taking a picture]

ASTRONAUT BILL ANDERS: That’s the Earth coming up… wow! Is that pretty!

PADI BOYD/HOST: That voice? It’s astronaut Bill Anders.

ASTRONAUT BILL ANDERS: You got a color film, Jim?

PADI BOYD/HOST: He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s about to take one of the most iconic photos of all time.

ASTRONAUT BILL ANDERS: You got a color film, Jim? Hand me a roll of color! Quick! Quick!

PADI BOYD/HOST: Earthrise… A reminder that we’re all in this together.

PADI BOYD/HOST: On this Earth Day, it’s important to remember how special our planet really is. After all, we only have one…

ANNMARIE ELDERING:…It’s amazing when you stop and think about it and the variety of life forms that exist and the temperatures that are perfect for us and the way the atmosphere protects us from the UV radiation. I mean, it’s really actually pretty astounding that the Earth creates this habitat where we, and all the life forms of the earth can exist…what a wonder..

[Fades Out]

[Music: Desperate in Karpaz]

PADI BOYD/HOST: The Curious Universe team includes Elizabeth Tammi and Micheala Sosby. Our executive producer is Katie Atkinson. Special thanks to Leslie Mullen, Colin McNutt, Michael Palace and Danielle Rappaport.

PADI BOYD/HOST: If you liked this episode, please let us know by leaving a review, tweeting about it @NASA and sharing it with a friend. Take a deeper dive by checking out the show notes.

PADI BOYD/HOST: Join us next week as we explore a historic NASA mission, the Hubble Space Telescope… our window to the stars!

[Music Fades]

Show notes:

Earth. There’s really no other place quite like it!

Wondering what scientists like Doug Morton and Annmarie Eldering have been up to lately? Check out the latest in NASA Earth science at

The Earthrise image, taken by astronauts in 1968, quickly became a powerful symbol of unity. Relive the moment when Bill Anders first captured this iconic snapshot.

Did you know that data can be turned into music? Discover what NASA’s Earth data sounds like when you sonify it! Hear the drums get louder with each passing Earth Day:

Continue exploring the universe and discovering Earth with @NASA.