By Liz Lebron
Working with NASA was not part of Dr. Sean P. Healey’s career plan when he enrolled at New College, but last week he got to do just that. Healy, who is a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, was in town for the launch of the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation, or GEDI, aboard SpaceX Dec. 5.
“It’s definitely not a straight line from where you’re going to where you’re going to end up,” said Healey, who spent two years teaching farmers how to raise fish as a Peace Corps volunteer after graduating from New College.
According to NASA, GEDI will be the first space-borne laser instrument to measure the structure of Earth’s tropical and temperate forests in high resolution and three dimensions. GEDI is a lidar, or light detection and ranging, sensor mounted on the International Space Station that will map the Earth’s forests as it orbits the planet.
GEDI measures how long it takes laser pulses to reach the surface of the Earth and make their way back to the ISS. The pulses that reach the forest canopy will bounce back faster than those that reach the forest floor, giving scientists a three-dimensional map of the Earth’s surface.
“What we end up with is a wave form,” Healey explained to a group of New College students who gathered to learn about GEDI at the Heiser Natural Sciences Complex, “that is correlated with the structure of the forest.”
The two-year mission will help scientists better understand the density of the world’s forests and how much carbon they currently store, among other things. GEDI will gather millions of data points and produce maps of the average biomass in one-kilometer blocks.
“My job on this team is making that last inference,” said Healey, “take all of those dots and make estimates for each one-kilometer area.”
Healey is also developing companion platform, dubbed Obi-Wan, which will serve as the applied end of GEDI. It will go live at a galaxy near you next year.
— Liz Lebron is associate director of communications and marketing at New College of Florida.