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Meet three scientists behind the Pluto mission

Shortly after the July 14 flyby of Pluto and its moons, we spoke with three members of the New Horizons mission team: Alice Bowman, the mission operations manager, and Cathy Olkin and Kimberly Ennico-Smith, deputy project scientists.

Editor’s note: Women make up about 25 percent of the Pluto flyby team. That may strike some as a yawning gender gap, but in astronomy, that’s a lot — enough women that NASA made a point of highlighting it, and a scientist on the team called it “refreshing.”

For comparison, in 2013, 11.8 percent of astronomers and physicists in the U.S. were female, according to The National Science Foundation’s report, “Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering.” And in the U.S. in 2010, 2011 and 2012 combined, 35 percent of doctorates awarded in astronomy were women, according to the American Institute of Physics. In 2012, three times as many women were awarded astronomy doctorates than two decades earlier.

Last week, we talked to three of these scientists on the New Horizons team about working on a deep space mission, their reaction to the first round of Pluto images and how to pronounce the name for Pluto’s largest moon, Charon.

There has been some debate over the pronunciation of Pluto’s Moon, Charon. What is the correct way to pronounce it?

Cathy Olkin:That is a really interesting question, and you probably noticed I switch between two different pronunciations. So there’s kair-uhn and shair-uhn. The fact of the matter is there is no one correct way. Kair-uhn is how you pronounce the Greek mythological character. Jim Christy discovered Charon. His wife’s name is Charlene and he prefers it to be pronounced shair-uhn to match the sound of her name.

What is your role on the New Horizons mission?

Cathy Olkin: I’m a deputy project scientist and have a number of different roles on the project. One of them is to make sure that the Ralph instrument commanding gets done correctly, I check them and verify them and help plan observations. Ralph is really two instruments in one. It’s a color camera and an infrared spectrometer. The infrared spectrometer is for mapping the position across the surface of Pluto. So it has two purposes: making color pictures and learning about the composition.

Kimberly Ennico-Smith: I’m a deputy project scientist, and I also have multiple roles. The one I focus on a lot is assisting the project scientist, Hal Weaver, with ensuring the readiness of the payload instruments for the encounter through their health and their calibration. I’m also co-investigator, and I’m interested in the composition of Pluto and Charon and the small moons.

Alice Bowman: I’m the mission operations manager, and I am in charge of the mission operations team. Our task is to take all the requests from the subsystem engineers and scientists and translate the desires of operations or calibrations into command sets and merge them all together, check them for any kind of violations and make sure that it’s safe for operations. We put those all together and send them out for team review, verify those commands, run them through our software simulator and also through our hardware simulator if there are first time events such as this nine-day flyby period.

Then we have the flight controllers who send those commands using the Deep Space Network up to the spacecraft, and they’re responsible not only for sending those commands and watching to make sure there’s a good set of instructions on board the spacecraft, but also for monitoring the telemetry of the information coming down from the spacecraft to make sure that everything on board is in a configuration to support normal operations and, if not, they alert the rest of the mission operations team, and we try to understand it. Additionally, we are responsible for scheduling communication times with the spacecraft. It’s an important dance with not only the commands on board the spacecraft but also with the communications on the ground.

What were you thinking when you first saw the images?

Alice Bowman: It’s been a long time coming.

Alice Bowman at work. Photo by SwRI/JHUAPL

Cathy Olkin: I was shocked when I first saw the images. We were seeing a point of light far away. and since then we’ve gotten more and more detail, and it’s been remarkable to me. Every time we get that next level of detail, I’m surprised again. We’re seeing new things with each new level of resolution. Things like the heart shape that we saw on Pluto with very different bright and dark regions. We could see that from relatively farther away and now we’re getting closer, and we’re seeing mountains that just blow me away. Every time I’m seeing more and more resolution on the surface I’m just astounded.

Kimberly Ennico Smith: We had seen glimpses of what we would see in greater detail on July 14 for a few weeks, every day, getting closer and closer, revealing more and more detail. On the morning of the 14th, we had seen data that was taken from, I believe nine hours prior to closest approach, so it was from the day before. It was the best image ever, and it in itself was unique and beautiful because it had revealed new details that we could not have predicted from any previous images.

Alice Bowman: For us on the operations side, we were just truly amazed that sending all these ones and zeros from Earth to a very, very, very small spacecraft that was pointed exactly in the right spot to receive those instructions to accomplish those observations and then to have that same stream of ones and zeros but just in another order come back from the data and have that translated into a world. Definitely unexpected. Something that you see for the first time as it changes in front of your eyes into mountains and craters and color. I’m so happy that we went there and I can’t imagine anyone saying that Pluto is not worthy of planet status. I mean, it’s just great!

What was the most surprising thing that you learned about Pluto from this recent data?

Cathy Olkin: The Ralph instrument brings back color, and I thought it was particularly interesting to see the dark spot on the moon, Charon. We received some color with some resolution, and you could see it was red, and I thought that was really exciting to get some color data down and see that the dark area was red, because that corresponded to some theories that we had been batting around on the science team. When we got that image of Charon, the deep canyons were shocking. That one near the edge, where you could actually see a notch out of the planet, that canyon is four to six miles deep. That’s just striking to me. I just imagine standing on Charon and looking across that canyon. I think that would be remarkable.

Kimberly Ennico Smith: I would add that it embraces the power of having a diverse set of instruments aboard your spacecraft. Yes, black and white images are beautiful, but when you add a splash of color, it brings it to life. Also, New Horizons is carrying a infrared spectrometer on board, which will really identify the molecules that we’ll be seeing or we have been seeing on the surface. When you combine those three different types of instruments, you have a very powerful tool to understand a new world. It’s been neat to see this just over the course of the last few days. It’s more than just a pretty picture. There’s a lot more information in there when you bring along different types of measurement techniques and different types of instruments with you, and that’s paying off. The complement of this payload is going to deliver and is delivering right now. You can see it in the color images right away. I remarked to Cathy the other day, multiple papers can be written from just one single image of the [Multicolor Visible Imaging Camera] color. (Note: MVIC is one of the colors cameras on the Ralph instrument).

Pluto and Charon. Photo by NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Alice Bowman: I think the image of Charon and Pluto, the one with both of them in the same frame where you see the beautiful orange-red color of Pluto, and you see the grayish color of Charon and the spectra that was returned showing that chemically, they’re very different. That was the most beautiful picture. It’s very representative of the Pluto system, and it’s a binary system, and it is the only one we know of in our solar system.

From the engineering side, I was just amazed that we could hit that aim point within seconds from when we were supposed to from billions of miles away. It was quite an engineering feat. The delivery was just amazing.

Cathy Olkin: The team had worked so hard, we’ve been traveling across the solar system for 9 1/2 years and there’s been a lot of work along the way. But there was a huge chunk just in the last couple of months. The effort, the navigation, mission design, science operations, mission operations, everybody pulling together, synthesizing each of their parts to make the best encounter scientifically. It was outstanding.

More data will be coming throughout the next 16 months. What are you personally most curious about?

Cathy Olkin: I’m really looking forward to getting that highest resolution data so that we can map the composition in the most detail. That’s the one dataset I’m probably looking forward to the most. I’m really interested in how those ices are distributed across the surface.

Kimberly Ennico Smith: We hope to understand the temperature profile of Pluto’s atmosphere and to hopefully discover more about whether Charon has an atmosphere or not. Usually these type of experiments are done with the signal originating from the spacecraft and sending it through the planet and then being received by the Deep Space Network but here we reversed it because of the power needed to send the signal. The data that we receive from this will be from the lowest points of the atmosphere.

Alice Bowman: There are a couple of cloud observations in the lineup, so I am most interested in that. I just think it would be pretty cool if we had clouds.

From left to right, Alice Bowman, Cathy Olkin and Dr. Kimberly Ennico Smith. Photo by Megan Crigger.

There’s a new generation of young scientists that is no doubt inspired by this mission. What drew you to this career?

Cathy Olkin: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a geologist, a paleontologist, an archaeologist, a doctor. I was pre-Med for a little while but became an engineer instead. I went on and got a Master’s in engineering and decided I wanted to be a planetary scientist.

I kind of think I would be happy doing any of those things, because I was passionate about all of them. In each turn I was like, ‘Oh, I’d really like to learn more about that,’ and so I would. So there wasn’t one thing that happened to me when I was a young person that made me say I have to be a planetary scientist but all along I was interested in learning how things work.

Kimberly Ennico Smith: I was just a curious kid who liked doing things, and I never imagined I’d be working on a flyby mission. I’m amazed that I am. I was digging through some things I collected as a child, and apparently when I was in fifth grade I had written a report about my favorite planet, which was Uranus, at the end of the report I wrote, “Voyager 2 will fly by this planet and rewrite history.” I was a cheeky 10-year-old, being aware that we were sending these spacecraft out. Two years after, I had collected all of the images that Voyager 2 had taken from the newspaper. I had then pasted it on the report, and on it I had enthusiastically written, “SCIENCE!”

Alice Bowman: I was just fascinated with the space program in the 60’s and 70’s and watched everything that I could, including science fiction. So that led to wanting to be an astronaut. I think somewhere in there I also wanted to be President of the United States. You know, you dream big, you’re a kid, and if no one tells you otherwise, it is as much of a possibility as anything else.

In college, I was fascinated with how things work; chemistry was a favorite pastime of mine. Physics was my major and chemistry became another major just because I always took the classes. But I think it’s just the beauty of how things work, and it led me along this path. I feel very fortunate that I was able to end up in space exploration.

Any advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?

Alice Bowman: Anything you do will include stumbling blocks; don’t let that dissuade you from pursuing your dream, just keep at it. If you’ve got a passion for it, you’ll be successful. Maybe not quite the same way that you thought, but you will be successful.

Kimberly Ennico Smith: If everything is easy for you, you’re actually never really learning anything. Life will throw stumbling blocks at you. What you choose to do with your time may seem hard, but if you love it, you don’t see those stumbling blocks. You jump over them, and when you’re jumping over them and working with them — you’re learning. It is very enriching. So, yeah, don’t be dissuaded. There might be some stumbling blocks but just follow your passion. Keep an open mind, stay hungry, stay curious, ask questions. Never stop asking questions, because when you stop asking questions you stop challenging yourself to learn more. There are so many questions that we’re asking now that we need to find answers for.

Cathy Olkin: Sometimes people don’t want to ask questions, because they don’t want to appear as if they don’t know. There is nothing wrong with asking questions. I would also say that you can do what you set your mind to. Don’t listen to other people who might say you can’t do something, or you can’t pursue a specific career. If you really want to, do your best and find ways to contribute to what you are passionate about.

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