User Profile: Abigail Nastan

Data from NASA’s Atmospheric Science Data Center helps system engineers like Abigail Nastan develop engaging new ways of partnering with data users to maximize the benefits of NASA Earth science missions.
Headshot of Abigail Nastan
Abigail (Abbey) Nastan, Systems Engineer with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: Abigail Nastan.

Abigail (Abbey) Nastan, Systems Engineer with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology

Research Interests: Using NASA Earth science data to improve life on Earth; improving the usability of NASA data products; creating effective visualizations of NASA data; developing engaging stories that show the value of NASA data; advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and throughout NASA

Research Highlights: If you go outside and take a deep breath, you’ll inhale a countless number of solid particles and liquid droplets known as aerosols. Aerosols drift in Earth’s atmosphere, from the surface up to the stratosphere, and range in size from a few nanometers (the width of a virus) to the diameter of human hair. But don’t let their small size fool you—when it comes to Earth’s climate and our human health, aerosols are a big deal.

The bulk of the aerosols, about 90% by mass, have natural origins—think ash from erupting volcanoes, smoke from forest fires, dust from sandstorms, and moisture from sea spray. The remaining 10% come from a variety of anthropogenic sources, such as emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, the release of synthetic chemicals into the air, etc. Yet, wherever aerosols come from, their ability to absorb or scatter sunlight can impact the climate by warming or cooling Earth’s surfaces and affecting cloud formation and precipitation. More importantly, they can cause severe impacts to human health. According to the Global Burden of Disease study, exposure to high levels of air pollution is a significant cause of premature death and ill health worldwide.

To better understand how aerosols impact the climate and human health, scientists rely on an array of ground-, aircraft-, and satellite-based instruments to detect the presence and movement of aerosols, assess the size of aerosol particles, and measure of the amount of light that aerosols absorb or scatter. 

NASA obtains measurements of aerosols from several satellite instruments—such as the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) aboard the Terra satellite, a second MODIS instrument aboard the Aqua satellite, and the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) aboard the joint NASA/NOAA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) and NOAA-20 satellites—and more are on the way. NASA’s Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols (MAIA) mission, which is currently in development, will make the radiometric and polarimetric measurements needed to characterize the sizes, compositions, and quantities of the particulate matter in air pollution. In addition, the Tropospheric Emissions Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO) mission, which is slated for launch later this year, will determine what’s in the air we breathe by monitoring major air pollutants across the North American continent.

Three column chart highlighting components of air pollution
Credit: JPL/MAIA team

Among those working to ensure the utility of the data to come from future missions like MAIA and help the user community make the most of NASA’s existing atmospheric datasets is Abigail (Abbey) Nastan, systems engineer with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), located at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California. JPL is a research and development lab federally funded by NASA and managed by Caltech. Its main activities involve robotic space and Earth science missions, and Nastan serves some of those Earth-focused initiatives by developing new ways to use and improve existing datasets and ensuring JPL’s projects meet user needs.

Currently, Nastan plays an active role in three JPL projects. She is the Applications and Communications Lead for the MISR mission; Deputy Program Applications Lead managing the Early Adopters Program for the MAIA mission; and she plays a key role in a research and development effort exploring the design of a future air quality observing system for the United States.

As Nastan points out, these projects span almost the complete lifecycle of science datasets.

“On MAIA, I’m in the thick of recruiting early adopters and working with the project Science Data System to ensure our data products will be useful and usable once we launch. On MISR, my job is to find new ways to use and improve datasets that have been in existence for decades,” she said. “With the research and development project, we’re looking into the future to try to figure out where the [data] gaps are and how to anticipate what we’ll need to continue the strides we’ve made toward improving air quality and, consequently, human health.”

Nastan on right working with a colleague sitting at left
Adrian Galvin (left), a Data to Discovery intern at the time (and now a fellow JPL employee), and I work on a paper prototyping exercise for the design of MERLIN in 2018. Photo credit: Adrian Galvin.

The majority of Earth science data she uses in her work come from NASA’s Atmospheric Science Data Center (ASDC), which is in the Science Directorate located at NASA'S Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. ASDC manages, archives, and distributes the data, tools, and resources in NASA’s Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) collection that are used to study changes in Earth’s atmosphere. Derived from satellite measurements, field experiments, and modeled data products, these data are important for understanding the causes and processes of global climate change and the consequences of human activities on Earth’s atmosphere and climate.

For example, Nastan and her colleagues are looking forward to the release of a new web-based visualization and analysis tool called MERLIN that provides access to MISR’s Plume Height Project dataset, a catalog of over 50,000 wildfire smoke plume heights derived from MISR Level 1 data.

“One of the benefits of MISR’s multiple camera design is that it allows us to geometrically calculate the height of an object in the atmosphere, like a smoke plume,” she said. “The dataset has been created through the work of many interns over the years, but until now the only way to examine the data was to download the raw text files for each plume after searching for them on an outdated interface on the MISR mission website.”

Nastan and the rest of the MISR team deemed this unsustainable since the outmoded MISR website, which would be archived when the mission was over, kept the Plume Height Project dataset from reaching potential users.

“We worked with Caltech’s Data to Discovery Program and four amazing interns to design and develop MERLIN, which will be hosted at the Atmospheric Science Data Center,” said Nastan. “[MERLIN will] provide permanent access to the Plume Height Project data and allow users to explore the dataset geographically and analytically without downloading any files.”

Nastan and her team are hopeful MERLIN will enable many new discoveries regarding wildfire behavior and the impact of fire on ecosystems and climate.

In addition to her work with MERLIN, Nastan, in her capacity as MAIA’s Deputy Program Applications Lead, collaborated with her counterpart on the TEMPO mission to develop and manage the NASA Airathon, an algorithm crowdsourcing challenge.

NASA Airathon particulate matter home page
The goal of the NASA Airathon is to advance our understanding of how to best design the kind of algorithms that MAIA and TEMPO will use to predict ground-level concentrations of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide from satellite data. Credit: DrivenData.

“The goal of the challenge is to advance our understanding of how to best design the kind of algorithms that MAIA and TEMPO will use to predict ground-level concentrations of particulate matter and NO2 from satellite data,” Nastan said. “[We asked] exposure science experts and machine learning and data science enthusiasts to submit as many algorithms as possible. The algorithms will then be compared to find the one that performs the best.”

To motivate people to participate, cash prizes are offered for the top-performing submissions. Since MAIA and TEMPO haven’t launched yet, participants are using existing satellite data, including data from MISR, to test their algorithms.

“There are thousands of possible algorithm designs—machine learning models, statistical models, pretty much unlimited possible choices of input datasets to go along with the satellite data—so it’s hard to know which will perform the best without a crowdsourcing event like this one,” Nastan said. “We’re very excited to see the final results in a few weeks.”

No matter which algorithm design wins the competition, Nastan’s work with the NASA Airathon and MERLIN demonstrates how data from ASDC are benefitting the atmospheric research community’s efforts to improve human health and better understand the consequences of human activities on Earth’s atmosphere and climate.

Representative Data Products Used or Created

Available through ASDC:

Other data products used:

Read about the Research

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (2022). NASA Airathon: Predict Air Quality (Particulate Track), Version 1.0. Driven Data, Inc. Accessed March 11, 2022.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (2022). NASA Airathon: Predict Air Quality (Trace Gas Track), Version 1.0. Driven Data, Inc. Accessed March 11, 2022.

Nastan, A., Val, S., Ainsworth, H., Tosca, M., Galvin, A., Boone, J., Nair, P., Makhan Virdi, M., & Garay, M. (2022). User Guide: The MISR Enhanced Research and Lookup Interface (MERLIN). JPL D-108271. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology.

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