With only a couple of days left before New Horizons makes its closest approach to Pluto, the mission website has posted an excellent overview of the powerful role women are playing in the mission, helping to break gender stereotypes.
One such woman is Fran Bagenal, the particles and plasma science team leader on the New Horizons mission, who started her career with the NASA Voyager missions to the outer Solar System. At the time, she was one of only a handful of women on the team.
“That’s just how it was,” she said. “Space physics was just my way of exploring the Solar System. But now, as a team leader on a team with dozens of women, she just takes it in stride. This isn’t remarkable – it’s just how it is.”
That sentiment is shared by many of her colleagues as well: “I’ve never really thought about it,” said Kim Ennico, a deputy project scientist on the mission. “I’m really only conscious of it when there are only women in a meeting room.” Ennico calibrates instruments on the spacecraft and monitors their status.
Another member of the team, Leslie Young, is in charge of fitting all of New Horizons’ science goals into the few days the spacecraft will be close to Pluto. “I figure out the spacecraft’s priorities,” she said, describing the process as “a job that means scheduling observations that can run simultaneously to gather the most data in a limited time.”
Those scheduled observations are then turned into actual spacecraft commands by the science operation team managed by Tiffany Finley. Finley called the new gender balance “refreshing.”
In turn, those spacecraft commands are passed on to the mission operations team, managed by Alice Bowman. She explained her responsibility: “I’m the last one who signs off on everything we send to the spacecraft. I want to make sure it’s perfect.”
When New Horizons actually arrives at Pluto, mission design leader Yanping Guo will take over, who stated simply, “My job is to get New Horizons to Pluto.” Guo configured the entire mission trajectory, including both the Jupiter and Pluto flybys.
As for the future of women in science, Young noted, “Girls will be inspired to be scientists and boys will grow up to be ‘gender blind,’ seeing women in science as the norm.” As deputy project scientist Cathy Olkin added: “New Horizons is about a group of talented, smart people who are passionate about the mission. That’s what makes New Horizons awesome.”
There is also an excellent new version of the Pluto map by Björn Jónsson. As the images get better, so do the maps. Pluto is looking like a real world now, with a wide range of topography and geology. The bright “heart” feature is in the middle of the map, with the long dark “whale” on the left and the other dark, irregular spots on the right (all along the equator). The black area on the bottom is where data hasn’t yet been filled in.
According to Emily Lakdawalla on Twitter, New Horizons has already detected nitrogen and methane on Pluto, and water ice on its largest moon Charon (all as expected). New images will be posted Monday and Tuesday, and then it starts “raining data” on Wednesday as flyby data is sent back to Earth.
New Horizons will make its closest approach of Pluto on July 14 at 7:49 a.m. EDT, whizzing past at 30,800 miles (49,600 kilometers) per hour.
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