When Stanford graduate student Will Woods began working for Professor Ivan Linscott three years ago, he knew little of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, or the radio science experiment (called REX) that Linscott leads for the mission. But Woods has since dived into the data that REX is providing on Pluto’s atmosphere, and he can’t say enough about the doctorate studies that have unexpectedly become the opportunity of a lifetime.
“It’s been incredible,” he says. “Working on New Horizons has made some role models very accessible to me – I can go to any one of the scientists on this team, no matter how senior, to ask a question or have a conversation. But at the same time, it’s also challenging – I have data to process and work on and I’m expected to contribute.”
Woods is one of about two dozen young scientists with important roles on the New Horizons team. Most just earned their doctorates within the last nine years and some, like Woods, are still working on their PhD. But they’re all working side-by-side with some of the top planetary scientists in the world, whose resumes include legendary solar system exploration missions such as Voyager, Galileo, Cassini and, of course, New Horizons.
“These young scientists are unbelievably talented,” says New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. “They showed a lot of energy and worked tirelessly through the encounter period. They amazed me in how much they accomplished, often working in the background. They’re going to go far.”
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, spoke of the opportunity for young scientists. “New Horizons is a truly unique planetary science mission for the 21st century. The opportunity to be on the first reconnaissance of a new planet was routine during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, but not so in the new millennium. The chance to be part of the only such mission of our time helped us recruit a truly outstanding group of young scientists.”
Alex Parker, a member of the composition mapping team, was more than ready to dive into his first planetary mission, but the SwRI research scientist says the experience of being embedded with an exceptional team working with such a singular purpose has been eye-opening. “Things that started as a sketch of an idea at the start of the day would be tackled so quickly and efficiently that we would see them completed by lunch,” he says. “I don’t know what other missions I’ll have the privilege to work on in the future, but I can’t imagine being more impressed with a team than I am with the people I’ve worked with on New Horizons.”
Kelsi Singer, another SwRI post-doc, has been working primarily with the geology and geophysics team and echoes Parker’s sentiments. “As an early career scientist I feel very fortunate to be involved in this exciting mission, and I’m grateful for all of the experience and insight I gained,” she says. “It is a lot of work, but it’s also exhilarating, so it makes all the hard work worth it. It was really fun to be part of a team of scientists crowded around someone’s screen pointing at fascinating geologic features [on Pluto] that we were seeing for the first time.”
These young scientists are also, not surprisingly, a big part of the mission’s social media efforts. Stern regularly includes Singer, Parker and post-doc Amanda Zangari in the mission’s Google+ Hangouts and Reddit “Ask Me Anything” sessions. Zangari’s “Postcards from Pluto” blog offers insights into her experience as a mission scientist. Parker has an active Twitter feed and co-developed the popular ‘Pluto Time’ project. He also produces widely-usedvisualizations of the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons’ next scientific target, pending approval of an extended mission.
Woods has teamed with Stanford film students on a New Horizons video that he hopes will lead to a series. “Having a lot of faith and trust put in me is empowering,” he said. “It has inspired me to do well.”
Say what you will about historic exploration and groundbreaking science – being on the New Horizons team is also just plain cool. SwRI’s Carly Howett, another member of the composition mapping team, not only performed groundbreaking science, she met a childhood hero, legendary Queen lead guitarist and astrophysicist Dr. Brian May.
In the early hours of July 14, Howett was among the first to see the iconic, global image of Pluto that New Horizons transmitted to Earth. “At that moment we were the only people in the entirety of human history who knew what Pluto looked like in that detail, fully underscoring the historic nature of the flyby,” she said.
“While I’m going to miss the encounter’s craziness I look forward to continuing to work with my new friends on our fantastic data set in the years to come,” she continued. “It promises to continue to be quite the ride.”