On the outside looking in are thousands of drones and satellites.

They're gathering data about Earth.

Down near the end of the world in central Otago are a tiny team of Kiwi scientists analysing the data that concerns New Zealand.

Leading that team is Delwyn Moller, who well and truly escaped the shadow of her Boston Marathon-winning sister, Lorraine.

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Moller, who has a pedigree as a scientist for Nasa-run Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Los Angeles, is now director of research at the Alexandra-based Centre for Space Science Technology (CSST).

Moller's other notable work includes chasing tornadoes and volunteering to help hundreds of sick and injured people as a medical technician for the fire service in Los Angeles.

She is also a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Scientist Delwyn Moller with her jiu jitsu instructor Orlando Sanchez. Photo / Delwyn Moller
Scientist Delwyn Moller with her jiu jitsu instructor Orlando Sanchez. Photo / Delwyn Moller

The 50-year-old relocated to Wanaka from LA with husband Dr Brian Pollard — who designed the radar used to help land the Mars Curiosity rover — and their twins Baxter and Lena, 11.

Satellite data comes from major space and government agencies, such as Nasa, and also many commercial providers.

That translates into advice and solutions for Aotearoa's economy and to protect our environment — for example, to help farmers with irrigation or "information about soil moisture for precision agriculture, or biomass and stand health for forestry".

"It's an exciting time to be doing this because there's the advent of lots of commercial access to space. Rocket Lab is a prime example of that," says Moller.

"Sometimes it's not straight­forward if you're a farmer to know how to interpret the satellite data that you get, but if you can bring these down into layers that they can make informed decisions on, then we can make a difference.

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"If we can provide better information to industries so that they better manage their resources, it saves them money [and] it also helps the environment."

The CSST's first order for satellite imagery was from North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery to assist with repairs to earthquake-damaged roads.

CSST, established in May 2017, has also partnered with international satellite-powered data company Spire Global, to use information from its constellation of small ship-tracking satellites to improve knowledge of maritime conditions throughout the South Pacific Ocean.

"Each ship has a transponder, and they have satellites that are monitoring those transponders' signals, and it gives you shipping and navigational awareness," Moller says.

"It can give you information about oceanic conditions, for surveillance or shipping channels or optimising of routes, or for the coastguard."

Moller was a radar systems engineer at the world-renowned Pasadena JPL, owned by Nasa, which has a staff of about 6000. She is one of a team of seven — although that's set to grow.

Rather than being daunted, she sees her new role as aunique opportunity.

"There's going to be a ton more [space-based] data coming online, with new sensors and new types of sensors being launched.

"Being able to cope with that data, know how to work with that data and disseminate the appropriate interpretable information — we're going to have to be pretty quick and resourceful."

Moller grew up in the Waikato town of Putaruru with sister, Lorraine, 62, who would go on to compete in four Olympics and win the Boston Marathon. Moller "closet ran" to avoid the pressure of comparisons.

"I'd sneak out the door and go for a run and hope nobody noticed."

But when she was spotted by fellow Auckland University students out jogging at the Domain and they discovered her family link, she found her name entered in the university track team.

Moller did a Bachelor of Engineering.

She loved art at high school but didn't think she could make a livelihood out of it, so went with maths and science.

In her final year of study, she designed an intelligent circuit breaker to safeguard the passage of electricity. Rather than theory, the project was "hands-on and that's when it clicked for me".

She enjoys applied engineering.

"You design, you field, you analyse, you do the end-to-end of the whole process.

"That's where I've spent months sitting on a pier looking at the waves, or on a ship, or flying over glaciers."

Moller completed her Masters of Engineering after being awarded a government scholarship for women in science and technology.

She was accepted into the University of Massachusetts ­Amherst, where she gained a PhD in electrical engineering, Moller was part of a tornado-chasing team during "an extremely fun few weeks" as a junior graduate student in the US.

Her job was to ready radar for approaching tornadoes.

Driving through a Texan town with sirens going off and people underground in bunkers, the team had been keeping an eye on a funnel cloud when the driver noticed a mega-cyclone heading right in front of them, she says.

They managed to get out of its path.

After graduating, Moller joined JPL and worked there for 10 years.

As a radar system engineer, she designed the systems and worked with engineers to build them and install them on planes or satellites.

She was on the science definition team for the Swot (Surface Water & Ocean Topography) mission, being run by Nasa and the French space agency, in partnership with the Canadian and UK space agencies. The mission will undertake the first worldwide survey of the planet's surface water.

Delwyn Moller - director of research at Alexandra-based Centre for Space Science Technology (CSST) - her husband Dr Brian Pollard and their 11-year-old twins Baxter and Lena.
Delwyn Moller - director of research at Alexandra-based Centre for Space Science Technology (CSST) - her husband Dr Brian Pollard and their 11-year-old twins Baxter and Lena.

Moller developed the airborne radar for AirSwot, which mimics measurements to be used on the Swot satellite due to launch in 2021.

The satellite will be able to measure volumes and changes in rivers and lakes around Earth, with an accuracy of 10cm.

Moller, who hopes CSST can be involved in the mission once it launches, says the survey of where our fresh water resources are and where they're going has tremendous implications for access to drinking and agricultural water.

"Most of our fresh water reserves are suffering a huge amount of pressure."

It will also allow better understanding of "the impacts that we're having on our climate through activities such as irrigation".

Another radar system developed by Moller is being used to map Greenland's ice sheet, being melted from below by warmer Atlantic water.

Nasa initiated the OMG (Oceans Melting Greenland) mission to help understand how oceans are joining with the atmosphere in melting the ice sheet and forecast the ensuing sea level rise.

Aircraft carrying the Glacier and Ice Surface Topography Interferometer (Glistin) radar developed by Moller have for the past three years been circum­navigating the Greenland ice sheet measuring glacial change.

Moller says sea level rise would place coastal regions at greater risk.

"And New Zealand has a lot of coastline.

"So couple that with storm surge, for example, and there's going to be greater vulnerability of coastal communities and infrastructure, and so it has impacts in terms of city and regional planning.

"Also other effects like saltwater intrusion into our estuarial zones, which are very vulnerable, unique ecosystems. Saltwater intrusion can be quite a large problem, especially if you're starting to look at some of the Pacific islands."

Regional and city councils are already investigating coastal vulnerability and where to move resources, Moller says.

Some Pacific Islands are looking at moving populations. "People are just taking it as this is a reality."

The more data on climate change and sea level rise that can be provided, "the better we can plan [ahead]", she says.

After JPL, Moller worked for Remote Sensing Solutions for 10 years, which develops radar systems, before moving to Wanaka.

Moller and her family love living in the resort town.

"Being able to look out and see Treble Cone right there, that was one of things in coming here," she says.

"The kids were out bouldering yesterday. They're really getting into rock climbing — that kind of thing is a fabulous opportunity."

Pollard, 48, who grew up in rural Ohio, is also enjoying the outdoors.

The family has already bought a family season pass for Treble Cone ski field.

The couple met as students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

"Delwyn [has] really got a sense of who she is and where she's going," Pollard says.

"She sees things very, very clearly. I had just never met anybody like her before."

Gaining his PhD in electrical and computer engineering, Pollard also joined JPL.

He has received numerous Nasa awards, including for his work on the Curiosity lander.

He was the lead system architect and engineer for the radar terminal descent sensor for the Curiosity rover, which touched down on Mars in August 2012.

"Getting to witness that landing was really, really quite something," Pollard says of the historic moment.

A bold new landing system had been required because of the 900kg rover's size. Its flight into the Martian atmosphere was guided by small rockets on the way to the surface.

A sky crane touchdown system lowered it to the ground.

Pollard was with the JPL engineering team during the descent, "watching all the real times feeds — right next to the people looking at the data".

When it touched down, "there was a lot of shouting and jumping up and down, and people crying".

"For me, [it was] clearly a career-defining moment."

Now he works from home for Remote Sensing Solutions.

He is working on cutting-edge Earth science sensors and also engineering-oriented sensors for such things as collision-avoidance systems for drones and underwater vehicles.

Moller regularly faces challenges of a different sort. She has been learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu for the past five years under Orlando Sanchez, a superstar of the martial art.

"The jiu-jitsu journey has been a pretty intense one, and very, very psychologically and physically challenging," she says.

In September she was awarded her brown belt.

Moller has also been confronted by harsh realities as an emergency medical technician on streets of LA County.

She volunteered for the Pasadena Fire Department after seeing the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks on New York City. She got her EMT certification to be able to help.

Assisting paramedics and providing basic life support such as CPR and ventilations, she has helped nurse hundreds of sick and injured, she says.

She has received a Presidential Volunteer Service Award.

Moller has seen victims of drug overdoses and drive-by shootings and witnessed death.

"You can see how people's lives can take very different paths depending on what situations are dealt to them or how they respond to those situations, and then what support they have societally.

"So with the work I do, I care very much about what we're doing with this planet and what our environmental conscience is," she says.

Moller is driven by a desire to make things happen and make a positive difference.

"I get to the point that it's like: I don't want to talk any more, I want to do something.
"We only have so much time, so let's use it."