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NASA’s Rosaly Lopes Talks Galileo’s Mission & Habitable Worlds

Rosaly Lopes, a NASA research scientist and manager of the Planetary Science Section at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, came to OU to discuss Galileo's Mission.

She’s a volcanologist, a planetary geologist, a NASA research scientist, and she surprisingly doesn’t have a bone to pick with the directors of space-related movies.

She’s Rosaly Lopes, and she spoke to University of Oklahoma students, faculty and staff, plus Norman-area residents, this week about the Galileo Mission. If you’re not familiar with the mission, NASA sums it up here:

Galileo plunged into Jupiter's crushing atmosphere on Sept. 21, 2003. The spacecraft was deliberately destroyed to protect one of its own discoveries - a possible ocean beneath the icy crust of the moon Europa.

Galileo changed the way we look at our solar system. The spacecraft was the first to fly past an asteroid and the first to discover a moon of an asteroid. It provided the only direct observations of a comet colliding with a planet.

Galileo was the first to measure Jupiter's atmosphere with a descent probe and the first to conduct long-term observations of the Jovian system from orbit. It found evidence of subsurface saltwater on Europa, Ganymede and Callisto and revealed the intensity of volcanic activity on Io. (http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/galileo/)

The University of Oklahoma’s College of Atmospheric & Geographic Sciences and the National Weather Center brought Lopes to campus as part of the university’s Galileo’s World, “an exhibit without walls," that spans OU’s three campuses and features 20 Galileo-related exhibits.

Before her presentation Tuesday, Lopes shared her favorite facts about the mission, her advice for students with a passion for space and how she manages to keep her cool when watching movies like “Gravity” and “The Martian.”

OU: That’s awesome! And we love this tie of Galileo’s Mission to what we’re doing here at OU with our Galileo’s World exhibit. We were wondering if you could tell us your favorite story or your favorite fact about the Galileo Mission.

RL: Oh, there are so many! I’ll tell you that I came to JPL as a postdoc. I came for two years and I didn’t know what I was going to do after that. I was living in England and had my education there and came to JPL for this post-doctorate opportunity. That’s when I made friends with some people who worked on the Galileo Mission. That’s how I got my first job at JPL. They said “Oh, you have done a lot of volcanology research. We need someone to do Io [the innermost of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons], and a lot of the planning for Jupiter’s volcanic moon. And I have never studied Io before. In fact, that was the infrared spectroscopy-machine. I had never done infrared spectroscopy. They were very much like, “Oh, you’ll learn!” And I had the most wonderful time on the Galileo Mission. It really gave me the opportunity to make my career. I think some of that was actually because the main Galileo communications antenna didn’t open, so that meant our data rate had to be really low because we had to use one of the smaller antennae. Our plan for the way we were going to record observations had to change, and I was put in charge of doing the planning of the observations for Io. And I was brand new. I had to just learn a lot in a short time. The consequence of the small data rate was that we couldn’t take a lot of images of data anymore. We had to be very, very targeted. So that was a bad thing, but at the same time it gave me a great opportunity to come in brand new and to figure all that out. 

And in the end, although we didn’t take a lot of data, we’re still using data from Galileo in science research. The mission ended in 2003. The last Io observations were in 2001. And some colleagues are still analyzing some of those observations. In the end, Galileo got extremely valuable data and it was a really successful mission despite all the problems we had. What I learned is we had the most amazing team, and the engineers in particular, they were the most incredible team. Something went wrong but there was no talk of ever giving up. It was like a constant in the history of that mission: We just find a way around it. It was very encouraging to work in that environment.

OU: It sounds like it was one of NASA’s most successful missions because, like you said, we’re still using that data that was gathered during the mission, years later. What other points are there that make this one of the most successful missions? 

RL: It’s very hard to say that one mission was more successful than another, and I’m not going to try to do that. The thing about Galileo is, given that we could return a relatively low quantity of data, we had a lot of difficulties. Galileo was supposed to be launched on the space shuttle after Challenger exploded in 1986. The spacecraft was already at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and you had to go back to JPL and you had to wait until we launched in 1989. In fact, we were supposed to launch from Earth directly to Jupiter, but we lost our launch window, or, let’s say, when the planets are aligned and you can actually go direct, and also because there were new safety considerations for a shuttle launch, a sentient spacecraft went inside the shuttle and it was launched in space. But there were new safety considerations, which meant the booster rocket it had to launch it on its way could not be as powerful as originally planned. So what people realized is that Galileo couldn’t get to Jupiter. It just wouldn’t have the energy that it needed to get there. These navigation engineers at JPL were really brilliant people. They came up with a new trajectory that sent it the opposite way, sent it to Venus to go around Venus and do what’s called a gravity assist maneuver that would increase its velocity. And then it used the Earth twice to do a gravity assist and that gave it enough energy to get to Jupiter. There were difficulties like that throughout the mission.

Jupiter has a very harsh radiation environment because of its powerful magnetic field, so that wasn’t very good for spacecraft or other instruments. We actually survived a much greater dose of radiation than the spacecraft was designed to do. So it was a very heroic mission. It had its difficulties but we managed to overcome them to end up with a very successful mission. And Galileo found, for example, the moon Europa has an ocean of liquid water under an icy crust. Now NASA is developing a mission to Europa because we know it has the same heating that causes the volcanos at Io, which is tidal heating. It also affects Europa. It has heat, it has water that has the possibility of life. Now Europa is one of the really important targets in the solar system. And that was thanks to the Galileo Mission. 

OU: It’s not every day we get to talk to a research scientist of your calibre, so now that we have you here we want to know if you have any thoughts about Pluto and what might be the most interesting discovery around this “non-planet?”

RL: I’m not working on that mission, so I don’t know much more than you guys know from reading the news. But as a planetary geologist, I think the most unexpected thing is the surface of Pluto is very diverse. If I had to predict something, I would think it would be like an old, cratered, icy surface, kind of boring. But in fact, it turns out to have some very smooth areas. That means that they were resurfaced by something. In general, how you tell the age of a planetary surface is the more craters it has, the older it is, because more impacts have come in. And Pluto has some very smooth areas and it’s also got some tectonic features like mountains. So I’m as puzzled as everybody else! In fact, I heard that the first major paper just came out in Science Magazine. Because I’m away from my office I haven’t seen it yet. If you download it, you’ll see this is the first sort of peer-reviewed results. 

OU: What you think about the push for finding habitable worlds? 

RL: I think the question of whether life has originated elsewhere is probably the most important question in planetary science. We can think about a lot of questions about the geology and the atmospheres and the magnetic fields, but this is a very key question. What are the conditions that you need for life to evolve? Is life going to evolve as easily as scientists think or not so easy? So there’s a search for what are the habitable zones, what are the places where life could have evolved and what are the conditions necessary for life to evolve, I think it’s really, really important. Years ago, we didn’t think anywhere else in the solar system was going to be habitable. Now we’re finding, for example, there are these moons in the outer solar system like Europa that have liquid water, a lot of liquid water under an icy crust.

So there are places elsewhere in the solar system, like Mars ... Mars had liquid water on its surface in the past and liquid water in the subsurface. Recent results even indicate that sometimes it comes to the surface. I think that’s very exciting that we’re asking the question: Did life evolve elsewhere?

OU: Given your background and expertise, when you watch movies like “Interstellar,” “The Martian” and “Gravity,” are you frustrated to find that they’re based on fact, but they sometimes favor storytelling over accuracy?

RL: I don’t take that attitude. I know a lot of my colleagues do and then they go on Facebook and start saying “That’s wrong in the movie!” But I have the attitude that it’s a movie, not a documentary, and there’s a big difference between the two. It’s entertaining. I try not to be frustrated. Sometimes I have wondered, “Ugh, if they had only talked to me!” But maybe they don’t want to talk to me because they want to show something that’s going to be more dramatic. And so you have to go with the attitude that this is for entertainment and it’s a movie. If they got something wrong in a documentary, I would be much more upset. I think all those movies were really well done and entertaining. I was actually amazed in “Gravity” how I was at the edge of my seat all the time and I thought it was going to be a slow movie. It was very, very gripping and really well done. I just recently saw “The Martian” and thought it was very clever. OK, that dust storm wouldn’t have happened but, you know … putting that aside, there were a lot of really clever ideas.

OU: We saw NASA has a site, Women@NASA. That got us thinking if there are other ways you think NASA encourages women to pursue careers or degrees in the STEM field? 

RL: We have a whole education department that does some of that. I’m not terribly qualified to talk about our education programs, but I know that we always try to be as inclusive as possible. I certainly have not seen any discrimination of any kind at JPL. In planetary science, which is my particular area, I’m seeing a lot of women come into the field, particularly young women. I think it’s about 50 percent female now. And in fact, the last three people we have employed in my section have all been women, and my manager, who is a man, joked with me: “You know, we’ve got to think about hiring some men!” For so many years we were thinking “Well, we should think about hiring females.” But at the end of the day, you want to hire the best candidate, and it so happened for our last three openings, the best candidates have been female. 

OU: Do you have any advice for those students who’ve dreamt of working with NASA or the National Laboratories, or maybe they want to do something similar?

RL: The most important thing for any student is to do what they love, to find that passion, that subject they really want to work on — that’s the first step. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we have about 5,000 employees. We have people working on a variety of different things. Usually a lot of engineers just come in with a first degree or a master’s. The scientists usually come in as postdocs or after even after postdocs. If they want to see how JPL or another NASA lab works, I would recommend investigating the student internship programs. For example, we have a variety of internship programs. We have programs where students come in from a variety of different places. We even have some high school students come in after age 16. That’s really a good thing for when you’re an undergrad is to do some summer internships at different places. It can help you find out what you love.