As a younger woman rising up in Cincinnati, Shannon Curry repeatedly requested her dad and mom in regards to the night time sky, particularly the planets, however as non-scientists, they seldom had solutions. “That’s what faculty is for,” her dad and mom instructed her.
So, she earned a B.S. in astrophysics from Tufts College and turn into a techniques engineer at Lockheed Martin earlier than getting into the College of Michigan to full a Ph.D. in atmospheric and area physics. Seven years in the past, she joined the Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL) on the College of California, Berkeley, to concentrate on missions to the planets Mars and Venus.
Curry is now in a chief place to reply most of the questions she posed her dad and mom greater than 20 years in the past. She has been appointed the principal investigator of MAVEN, the Mars Ambiance and Risky Evolution, considered one of three NASA satellite tv for pc missions now orbiting the purple planet and the one one run by a lady.
On the age of 38, she can also be one of many youngest principal investigators of any NASA mission.
“I by no means imagined I’d lead a mission to Mars,” mentioned Curry, who’s deputy affiliate director for planetary science and astrobiology at SSL. “My focus is to proceed executing our mission and reaching our science targets. Now we have a killer group, so I’m wanting ahead to the subsequent chapter of MAVEN.”
Principal investigators are scientists or engineers exterior of NASA who bear accountability for a mission’s success. The position of MAVEN principal investigator — till final month, a job stuffed by Bruce Jakosky of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics on the College of Colorado, Boulder — contains managing operations, the orbit, the information pipeline and processing, gas utilization, and simply ensuring the spacecraft stays up and working till the top of the last decade, Curry mentioned, partially to relay knowledge from the rovers on the floor again to Earth.
Because the youngest of the NASA satellites orbiting Mars — the others are the 20-yr-outdated Mars Odyssey and the 15-yr-outdated Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) — MAVEN is the principle contact between Mars and Earth by the Deep Space Community.
“There may be monumental accountability on MAVEN to make it to the 2030 goalpost, as a result of sooner or later, Mars Odyssey will probably be decommissioned, and the identical factor with MRO,” Curry mentioned.
Comply with the water
As a planetary physicist, although, Curry’s major curiosity is the science. Within the seven years since MAVEN settled into orbit round Mars, it has contributed immensely to our present understanding of the planet’s historical past — specifically, why it misplaced its ambiance and what occurred to the oceans of water that used to cowl the planet. Curry mentioned that an environment is important to sustaining liquid water on the floor of any planet, and as quickly because it disappears — one thing that occurred on Mars some 4 billion years in the past, early in our photo voltaic system’s historical past — so does the water. The query NASA has been asking about Mars for many years is: The place did that water go? The reply has implications for whether or not life ever arose on the planet, and in that case, the place it might be hiding at this time.
“We all know 100% there was liquid water on the floor of Mars. We are able to see dry river deltas, we will see options on the floor that had been carved or created within the presence of water,” she mentioned. “So, with that geomorphic proof, we all know liquid water existed on the floor on 1,000,000-yr timescale, although it may have even been a billion. That mentioned, because the ambiance eroded, as atmospheric strain decreased, the water had to go both up or down. I consider MAVEN as on ‘Crew Up.’”
In different phrases, from its orbit lower than 100 kilometers above the floor, MAVEN’s devices monitor the escape of gases upward into area. Scientists then use these numbers to mission again in time to estimate when and the way a lot water evaporated into area, as opposed to the water that froze out underground or on the polar caps. These estimates additionally give a measure of how a lot whole water as soon as stuffed the now dried-up rivers and oceans.
“An infinite quantity acquired trapped within the crust, and an infinite quantity escaped to area,” Curry mentioned. “Given the present escape charge, we’re taking a look at between half a meter and 10 meters of a ‘world equal layer’ of water, that’s, if the entire planet had been coated in water. That comes simply from atmospheric and ionospheric measurements by MAVEN. Whenever you fold in what the rovers are telling us, by way of soundings and pattern evaluation on the bottom, I feel it’s greater than that.”
As MAVEN principal investigator, Curry has already begun to define MAVEN’s subsequent chapter of science with the mission group, which entails not solely atmospheric research, but in addition measurements of the energy and distribution of magnetic fields on the floor.
“Considered one of our largest targets will probably be to research the Martian ambiance below excessive circumstances,” she mentioned.
These excessive circumstances are created by the solar, which started a brand new photo voltaic cycle final yr and can turn into rather more energetic over the subsequent 5 years. Coincidentally, on the peak of the photo voltaic cycle, the Martian world mud storm season will start. International mud storms happen roughly each three Martian years and might final wherever from two weeks to two months.
“It’s uncommon for these two occasions to overlap at precisely the identical time,” Curry mentioned.
The intense exercise of the solar throughout the first billion years of the photo voltaic system was what stripped away Mars’ ambiance within the first place, she mentioned, whereas Earth and Venus retained theirs. The the explanation why these three planets suffered completely different fates have main implications for exoplanet research, suggesting that planets may have extra than simply the correct temperature — being within the Goldilocks Zone, or liveable zone, that enables liquid water to persist — so as to assist life. Planets additionally may have a worldwide magnetic subject to shield the ambiance from photo voltaic storms and maybe volcanoes to substitute the ambiance eroded away by energetic stars like our early solar.
“I’m ecstatic for the leaps we’ve made in exoplanetary exploration and science, however there’s a lot we will study from our personal planets,” she mentioned. “It’s important for all of us within the planetary group to take our experience about our specific goal and begin to piece collectively a bigger image about how all of us acquired right here, figuratively and actually.”
New power and concepts
MAVEN was conceived by Jakosky, the late UC Berkeley physics professor Robert Lin, and Lin’s SSL colleague, Janet Luhmann, throughout an hour-lengthy cellphone dialog in 2003 that ended with a call to suggest the mission to NASA. Jakosky assembled a MAVEN group that proposed and received the NASA MAVEN mission in 2007. The satellite tv for pc was launched in November 2013, however Lin didn’t stay to see this milestone: He died abruptly from a stroke in November of 2012.
So, whereas Lin recruited Curry to SSL even earlier than she accomplished her Ph.D. — her thesis was about what MAVEN would detect on Mars — it was Luhmann who onboarded her and served as a mentor.
“Janet picked me up, and I got here to work below her wing and tutelage,” Curry mentioned. “I can’t converse extremely sufficient about her mentorship to me. She is totally the epitome of poise, grace and arduous work when it comes to science.”
As a part of Curry’s transition to principal investigator, Luhmann will step down as deputy principal investigator, making manner for SSL’s David Mitchell to assume that place. Mitchell has been mission supervisor of MAVEN since its inception.
“She (Curry) brings power and concepts that may take MAVEN into new science and purposes territories, bringing its many forms of observations to the eye of recent audiences,” Luhmann mentioned.
Jakosky emphasised that Curry’s expertise as a planetary physicist, mathematician, statistician and techniques engineer makes her greater than certified to lead the MAVEN mission.
“She is aware of how science and engineering work collectively,” mentioned Jakosky. “She has a very good thought course of. Throughout the numerous conferences, I watched her gather the knowledge essential to make considerate and clever choices.”
Since coming to SSL, Curry put these expertise to use as mission scientist for the ESCAPADE twin-satellite tv for pc mission to Mars, the place she teamed with SSL’s Rob Lillis, and because the science lead for NASA’s Parker Photo voltaic Probe throughout its many gravity-help loops round Venus, that are a chance to probe the planet.
As she takes the helm at MAVEN, Curry is happy about seeing early profession scientists use knowledge from the mission, as she has completed since earlier than arriving at SSL.
“You see graduate college students and postdocs get actually enthusiastic about their discoveries. It’s kind of a as soon as-in-a-lifetime alternative to get to work on knowledge that nobody else has ever seen from one other planet and get to share that have with others,” she mentioned.
When not working, Curry will be discovered on the working trails within the close by hills — she and her husband met at an area working membership — or at an area climbing health club. Or, as of early this yr, caring for her new child. When Curry interviewed for the MAVEN principal investigator job in December, she was 8½ months pregnant and now has an eight-month-outdated boy, Jack.
“I’ve acquired my spacecraft child and my human child, and I like them each very a lot,” she mentioned.