Nerds In Real Life Science & Tech

Nerd Profile: The Space Explorer (Part II)

On Monday, in Part I of our interview with Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab Engineer David Kusnierkiewicz, he shared his early influences, how he got started in the business of space exploration, and his work on the NASA Juno mission to Jupiter. Today, David gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the planning for NASA’s historic journey to the outer solar system and Pluto flyby and other upcoming missions. We conclude with David offering young Nerds some ideas about how they might prepare to reach for the stars themselves one day:

RN: When did you begin planning for the NASA New Horizons (NH) Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission?

DK: A group of scientists started thinking seriously about a Pluto mission back in 1989. There were many studies conducted in the 1990s, but they never got off the ground, so to speak. I started working on the proposal for New Horizons (NH) in 2001. A Pluto mission was identified as a priority by the science community, and there was a strong desire to get there before Pluto moved so far away from the sun in its orbit that the atmosphere froze out and “snowed” to the ground.

Pluto’s orbit around the sun is much more elliptical than, say, Earth’s or Mars’. It’s what we call a very eccentric orbit. Because of Pluto’s motion, and motions of the other planets, launching sooner rather than later was critical to getting there at all, using existing propulsion technology. We launched in 2006 and it took us 9.5 years to get there, with the help of a gravity assist at Jupiter. If we had launched in 2007, it would’ve added at least three years to the arrival date because Jupiter was no longer in the right position to give us a gravity assist.

RN: When will all the data collected from the Pluto flyby be in and available? What’s being done with it now?

DK: It will take 16 months for all the data from the Pluto flyby to be transmitted back to Earth. So it should all be received on the ground by this November. Some data transmitted earlier was “compressed” data. Sometimes there are some details that are lost during compression. So, some data we’re down-linking now is more detailed than what was first transmitted.

The data is being processed and analyzed almost continuously, and will be for years to come. A new “picture of the week” has been made public each week since the encounter.

RN: What’s the most important thing we’ve learned from Pluto, so far?

DK: You should really ask one of the scientists that question. One of the most surprising things to me is that there appear to be ongoing active geologic processes on Pluto. It is not a static, unchanging world. Some of the Pluto surface is extremely smooth. It’s not pockmarked and cratered from impacts, like the surface of our moon. That implies a mechanism for “renewing” the surface that wipes these features clean.

Another surprise to me was revealed in one of the pictures we took of Pluto looking back towards the sun, which showed the atmosphere of Pluto is colored blue, just like the sky here on Earth. I never expected to see that.

I think what we’ve learned from Pluto is the same as what we learn whenever we explore something totally new. Our world, our solar system, our universe is so full of wonders and surprises. As others have observed, it’s possible for us to understand so much of it and still be amazed by it.

RN: Now that NH is hurtling toward the Kuiper Belt and outer limits of our solar system, what’s next? How much longer will NASA receive its data?

DK: Actually, Pluto is considered the first object in the Kuiper Belt, so it’s been hurtling through it for a while. The solar system is now considered to be composed of three zones. The first is made up of the terrestrial, rocky planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. The second is the gas giants: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The third zone, extending about three to five billion miles from the sun, is the donut-shaped Kuiper Belt. Short-period comets (comets like Haley’s Comet with orbital periods of up to 200 years or so), are thought to originate from here.

If you keep going out from the sun, eventually you encounter the Oort Cloud, which envelops the solar system like a sphere. Long-period comets are thought to originate from here. NH has already adjusted its trajectory to encounter another Kuiper Belt Object, named KBO-2014 MU69 and will fly by it on January 1, 2019, while using its instruments to learn as much as possible.

New Horizons should have sufficient power to allow us communications with the spacecraft until about 2030.

RN: What’s the next mission you’ll be involved in?

DK: Currently, we’re working on three missions for NASA. One is called Solar Probe Plus, which is scheduled to launch in July 2018, and will orbit the sun, getting to within 3.7 million miles of its surface.

Another mission called DART (Double-Asteroid Redirection Test) is part of a two-spacecraft mission called AIDA (Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment). The DART spacecraft will impact the smaller body of a binary (2-body) asteroid called Didymos. We’ll measure how the trajectory of the target body changes, and acquire information that will be important if we ever need to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth.

Finally, we are partners with JPL on a mission to study Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, and put a lander on its surface. Europa is of great interest to scientists because it has a lot of frozen water on its surface, and possibly liquid water beneath. The presence of water does not mean we will find life, but we don’t think we’ll find life without it.

RN: What’s one thing you wished you’d known growing up that would’ve helped you in your career working with JPL and NASA? Any regrets?

DK: I can’t say I have any regrets. I think I’ve been incredibly lucky in my career. When I first joined the Laboratory we did most of our work for the Navy, and I was very happy to be working on spacecraft for them that circled the Earth in low-Earth orbit, doing things like mapping the oceans with radar altimetry. I never expected that I would end up working on missions that literally span from one end of the solar system to the other.

RN: What’s one thing you did “right” as a young student that helped give you a leg up?

DK: Being good in math and science definitely helped. And also, my father set a great example with his ability to build or fix most anything. At the time I was growing up, we had not yet become a “throw-away” culture. Most things that we bought – radios, TVs, washing machines, whatever – could be more cheaply repaired when they broke, instead of just throwing them away and buying a new one. Automobiles also were much simpler and therefore much easier to work on. Many of us did a lot of our own car maintenance and repair growing up. So, I grew up learning how a lot of things worked.

RN: Aside from getting an engineering degree from a respected school, what kinds of hobbies/activities would you recommend kids pursue if they might want to work one day with NASA or JPL?

DK: Well, the essence of engineering is problem solving. And in order to solve engineering problems you have to understand how things work, and the properties of nature (that is, the “laws of physics”) that govern the physical world. So, I think you need to develop a sense of curiosity about the world around you if you don’t already have one. For instance, don’t just play a videogame. Instead, maybe take time to understand how a computer works on the inside, or how to write an application. Or learn how your smart phone connects you with your friends by voice or text.

And read. Read a lot.

By the way, NASA, JPL, SpaceX, etc, don’t just need engineers. They also need scientists, mathematicians, physicists, astronomers, technicians, machinists, and mechanics – all kinds of people.

But most of these disciplines will require you to learn math. Don’t think that if you aren’t “good at math” that these doors are closed to you. It just might mean you have to work a little harder at it, or find a different teacher who can explain things in a way you can understand. And it’s important that you really understand the math at one level before you move up to the next. Math and engineering skills are tools that will allow you to solve problems in the real world.

RN: What do you think is the most important thing we’ve discovered through space exploration over the past few years? What do you hope we’ll learn in the next 5 years?

DK: It’s hard for me to single out just one thing we’ve learned from space exploration as the most important. It’s quite possible we haven’t yet realized exactly how important something we’ve discovered will turn out to be. But there are three significant things that stand out to me:

  1. We’re discovering water in places where we never expected to find it. We have confirmed the presence of water on the moon, Mercury, and Mars. The presence of water is important from the standpoint of the search for life elsewhere in the solar system. But it’s also significant in that it may provide resources for supporting human life and travel off of the Earth.
  2. The number of planets we’ve found around other stars in our galaxy from the Kepler mission. We now have evidence that our own solar system is not unique. Who knows where that knowledge may lead us?
  3. I think there are numerous discoveries that have been made from space about our own planet that are probably the most important of all. The data we get from the instruments on our Earth-orbiting spacecraft inform us about how 7 billion people affect our environment and the natural resources available to us, and how future generations will be affected. We also gain a greater understanding of how our Sun affects the environment here on Earth, which is also important to understanding the system of which humans are a part. I hope this knowledge leads us to smarter ways of utilizing and distributing our resources and minimizing environmentally harmful waste products that are incompatible with maintaining a sustainable relationship between humans and the Earth.

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