TWITTER! Brace yourselves for FIRE & ICE at Real Scientists this week! We have no less than SIX curators, and they’re all NASA vulcanologists and astrobiologists, and they’re all tweeting from ICELAND! The team is visiting Iceland to do measurements and sampling of Iceland glaciers as analogs of icy moons in the solar system, especially Europa. They’ll be traveling to several locations in Iceland, and eventually getting to a glacier area where the actual research will happen. Expect off-roading, camping, hiking and lots of science!
First up is Conor Nixon (@shamrocketeer), planetary scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD, USA. Read all about how he ended up in science below:
As a child, I was mesmerized by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series, and also the TV coverage of the Voyager encounters with Uranus in 1986, and Neptune in 1989. I was also fortunate to have an enthusiastic high school teacher who taught an astronomy elective class at lunchtimes. I already knew I enjoyed solving math and physics problems: they seemed like fun puzzles that had a definite right or wrong answer, unlike my social studies essays! By the time I hit college I knew I wanted to combine math + space = astronomy.
It was in graduate school that I shuffled sideways from astrophysics to planetary science. By that time I was finding stars and galaxies amazing, but abstract. I realized that I wanted to work on something a bit closer to home, places that could really be explored by spacecraft and humans. I found a team at Oxford University who were busy helping NASA to build one of Cassini’s instruments, and I jumped at the opportunity to join in. I was lucky enough to attend the launch of Cassini, and shortly afterward graduating with my PhD, I went to work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Over time, I found a niche that I loved: studying Titan’s atmosphere, a haven of complex chemistry that could hold clues to the origin of life in the solar system. I’ve since broadened my interest to include the wider field of astrobiology, I just can’t imagine anything more interesting and exciting to study.
I mostly work in spectroscopy, which is splitting light into its different component colors, and measuring the strength of each type. Every object we look at has a unique fingerprint of varying colors, its spectrum. Planetary atmospheres have rich spectra in the infrared, where different gases emit different heat signatures. By unraveling the planet’s spectrum we can tell what gases are there, their temperature, and even things like cloud droplet sizes and wind speeds. Recently, I’ve also started to study the surfaces of moons, since many of the most exciting objects in the solar system are “Ocean Worlds” like Europa and Enceladus. These may not have atmospheres, but have plenty to interest scientists with their interior oceans that could harbor life.
There is tremendous public interest in space stories, both the fictional kind (Star Wars, Star Trek) but also the real tales of scientific discovery that come out every week from spacecraft exploring our solar system. The Cassini mission accumulated over a million followers on Twitter, and many people worldwide watched the dramatic end of mission unfolding in real time. I have yet to talk to anyone who doesn’t have some curiosity about the cosmos, our place in space, and our origins. These are the big questions that have kept campfire conversations going since as long as humans have had campfires, and eyes to look up!
Outside of work, family takes up a lot of the rest of my life. My children are at an age where their activities and friends are snowballing in number, but they’re not old enough to be asking for the car keys. I’ve also recently joined the Philosophical Society of Washington, which is a great meeting club for curious people that was started back in 1871 by physicist Joseph Henry, and counts Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell as one of its early presidents.
Please welcome Conor to Real Scientists!