This post is part of a series discussing the recent NASA Discovery Program mission selections for further refinement. From the 27 proposals submitted in November of 2014, NASA has selected 5 missions for further refinement in the next year. Part 1 of the series focused on the overview of the Discovery refinement selections and an interview with the Lead Program Scientist for the Discovery Program, Dr. Michael New. Part II focussed on the Psyche Mission (PI: Linda Elkins-Tanton, Arizona State University, Managed by JPL). Part III will focus on the NEOCam Mission (PI: Amy Mainzer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Managed by JPL).
Mission Overview: NEOCam
The Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) mission will permit the most comprehensive inventory ever made of our solar system’s small bodies (asteroids and comets) using a space-based infrared survey telescope. NEOCam will detect millions of asteroids, enabling unprecedented understanding of their origins, evolution, and physical properties, and significantly reducing the risk of an unwarned impact on the Earth. NEOCam will detect approximately ten times more near-Earth objects (NEOs) than are known today, making significant progress toward the direction given to NASA by the U.S. Congress to discover more than 90% of near-Earth objects large enough to cause significant regional damage.
Asteroids and comets offer opportunity and risk. As remnants of the early solar system, they are time capsules from the past, and may have been responsible for the delivery of water, influencing the subsequent evolution of life on our planet. Yet asteroid and comet impacts could cause significant harm in the future. With NEOCam, we seek to greatly expand our knowledge of the population and physical characteristics of Earth’s nearest neighbors, asteroids and comets, understand their origins and evolution, and quantify and reduce the risk of a preventable major natural disaster.
As important as these objects are to Earth’s past and future, much about them remains unknown. While more than 90% of near-Earth objects larger than 1 km have been found to date, only about 25% of NEOs between 100 m and 1 km have been discovered. With NEOCam, we can build upon the WISE and NEOWISE missions to discover a much more substantial fraction of the NEO population as directed by Congress, allowing us to understand how they formed and have subsequently evolved to the present day.
About the Mission PI (Amy Mainzer):
About the Mission Deputy PI (Ned Wright):
Interview with PI (Amy Mainzer):
What previous mission experience do you have?
I've been working on NASA missions for the last 20 years or so. I started off working at Lockheed Martin on NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. I was responsible for the mission's fine guidance sensor, which helps Spitzer aim at its targets accurately. While working on this project, I finished my Ph.D. in astronomy by working on an infrared camera called the First Light Camera (FLITECAM) for NASA's airborne SOFIA observatory. After Spitzer launched and I graduated, I joined JPL as a member of the WISE team, serving as the Deputy Project Scientist. I became the PI for the asteroid-hunting portion of the WISE data processing pipeline, a project known as NEOWISE, in 2007. Eventually, after WISE successfully completed its primary science mission, the telescope was reactivated to continue searching for asteroids and comets, and we renamed it NEOWISE. I am also the PI of NEOCam.
What has been your career steps to this point? Had you always wanted to be a mission scientist?
I first became interested in astronomy as young kid; as I got older, I thought I would become a theorist. But then something unexpected happened - I started working in Doug Osheroff's low temperature physics lab at Stanford, and I discovered that I loved lab work! I've always loved drawing and grew up in a family of artists, so it was life-changing to realize that making machinery was just an extension of that: creativity using a different medium. As a kid, I thrilled to pictures of the planets from the Voyager missions. Somewhere along the way it became clear that I'd need to go to graduate school, but a formative experience was the labwork I did as a physics undergrad, which helped me realize that what I really wanted to do was build instrumentation for space research. I didn't really do anything that was super helpful for my faculty advisors, but they were patient teachers, and I learned a lot from them about everything from using a torque wrench to cleanroom microfabrication techniques.
I initially planned to take a year off after undergrad to work at Lockheed Martin and save money for grad school, but after being assigned to Spitzer, I knew I had to stay on the project. They needed someone to lead the development of the mission's cryogenic fine guidance sensor. I designed and built the flight hardware, assembled it, tested it, and eventually delivered it and saw it through launch and in-orbit checkout. Meanwhile, I was working on another camera for SOFIA as my Ph.D. thesis project; my advisor Ian McLean was part of the Spitzer team. I was delighted to join JPL and WISE. At JPL, I had the opportunity to propose my own mission to NASA in 2005: NEOCam was born. Although we didn't win that time, we received a runner-up score, and I was encouraged enough to try again in 2010. We then received funding to mature the infrared detectors we need for the mission. Meanwhile, WISE/NEOWISE has delivered a trove of data on asteroids and comets, and it has served as a valuable pathfinder for NEO discovery and characterization. With NEOWISE, we've discovered more than 34,000 new asteroids, most of which lie in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. We've also discovered a couple hundred new NEOs; with NEOCam, we'll be able find many more.
I feel so incredibly lucky to get to do this work. It's been a wonderful ride.
What are your next steps and main challenges moving forward?
Now that NEOCam is in Step 2, we have a lot of work to do! There is no such thing as an easy space mission, so we've got to work hard to ensure that we can deliver the best quality science on schedule and on budget. But beyond this work, I'm looking forward to continuing work on outreach, which is renewing and helps me keep thinking about the big picture - our place in the universe. Astronomy provides a wonderful sense of perspective: we must protect our marvelous and unique planet, our only home.
What advice would you give to a new comer in the field looking to go into mission work?
I'd say that getting started on research early as an undergraduate makes a big difference. If, like me, you don't come from a family background in this area, there are so many exciting things to work on that I knew little about. Undergraduate research upended my preconceived notions of what work in space research is like. I had no idea about what jobs even existed. Working in industry can also be a tremendously valuable experience. Systems engineering work provides a great overview of how spacecraft are built and operated, and seeing the teamwork and cameraderie is inspiring. Teamwork is essential to making missions work; it's like being part of a band or a sports team in that regard. A successful space mission represents hundreds or even thousands of people working together for a common goal, so building teamwork skills is a good idea. One of the best things about working on WISE/NEOWISE has been our team, who are like family to me.
Tell us a hobby or two of yours, and why you like it.
I love roller disco. I started skating shortly after the WISE launch. It's basically dancing on quad skates. It's great exercise to great music, and it's completely different from my work. I also love gardening with native California plants. It's a pleasure to watch nature come back even in areas where it's been wiped out, and as a bonus, these plants are lush and beautiful even in the midst of the fierce drought we're having.