SBU alumni take flight with NASA
By Shelley Catalano
Stony Brook’s reputation in the space sciences has skyrocketed through the years, thanks in part to our legendary Department of Physics and Astronomy. But that’s just the tip of the asteroid. Alumni from a wide variety of disciplines have been helping NASA to unravel the mysteries of the universe.
Here we highlight alumni who are working on projects that are quite literally out of this world.
Mission to Mars
For Scott Perl ’08, his role as a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California brings him full circle to his days as a student at Stony Brook. In 2004 he was the first undergraduate to work with Distinguished Professor Scott McLennan in the Department of Geosciences as part of McLennan’s Mars Exploration Rover (Opportunity) Athena Science Team. Perl helped to analyze sedimentary rocks to learn about the geologic history of the red planet and even accompanied McLennan on a visit to JPL. Little did Perl know then that this was only the beginning of a now nearly 18-year relationship with Mars.
“I really wanted to do research in college so I just knocked on Professor McLennan’s door one day and we had a really long, awesome conversation. And he showed me the potential research pathways and how that would relate to graduate school and eventually a career as a scientist,” Perl said.
After earning two separate bachelor’s degrees in geosciences and materials science at Stony Brook, Perl continued as a collaborator on the Athena Science Team. He then completed his master’s degree at Purdue University in aeronautical and astronautical engineering. In early 2012, Perl started as a full time scientist at JPL while simultaneously beginning his doctorate studies at the University of Southern California’s Earth Sciences department. Since that time, he has worked on various planetary missions including the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity), the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, and various life detection instrument concepts.
Today, Perl, a 2021 SBU 40 Under 40 honoree, is leading a few Mars projects of his own in addition to a role as co-principal investigator of the JPL Origins and Habitability Lab. In this position, Perl is focused on measuring habitability on rocky planets and icy moons in the solar system alongside life detection instruments and research.
Some of Perl’s current projects on Earth — in South Africa and in the United Kingdom — are looking for life in very extreme environments, examining ways to actually detect what cells are present in specific brines and salt minerals. “It’s not just a search for physical biosignatures and chemical biomarkers of what might be life-like or might be life, but it’s the agnostic features that we can measure,” he said. “Understanding how life on Earth persists within extreme environments can help us understand how life, their chemical biomarkers and biosignatures in the mineral record can be preserved and validated on other solar system bodies.”
The knowledge from these projects will not only inform Perl’s research, but also will help him and his colleagues on the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG), which is responsible for providing the science input needed to plan and prioritize Mars exploration activities. Perl was recently elected to MEPAG and is now leading the astrobiology and life detection efforts for what missions will be attempted during the next five to 10 years, and then the following 10 to 20 years. Finding ways to do those projects most efficiently — and cost effectively — will be key.
“We will be looking at what missions we can actually do for $300 million. What are the low-cost life detection elements that we can do within that budget? And can you build mission arcs from this low-cost paradigm for the next 10 years? These are all questions we will address as we help guide Mars missions for the next five to 20 years,” he said.
The nature of Mars rover, orbiter and landed missions over the past twenty years has been largely in the realm of assessing the ancient habitability on Mars, when it was warmer and wetter, some 3.5 billion years ago. The concept of habitability implies that your environment can sustain cellular life but it can’t prove it. According to Perl, surface experiments on future missions will need to be “significantly enhanced to measure biological compounds both agnostically and with terrestrial biases to understand what is authigenic — meaning formed in place on Mars — and potential terrestrial contamination that would come with us.
“We can’t make any certain claims that there is biology or was biology on anything that we have from the Mars rovers as these experiments were never designed to do so,” Perl continued. “I’m hopeful in the near future the capabilities for life detection will be part of either a low-cost Mars mission that can help pave the way to a larger New Frontiers-level of mission type that agnostic geobiological experiments can be included.”
As Perl continues searching for life outside of Earth, he is also committed to inspiring a new generation of scientists to do the same, paying forward the lessons he learned from Scott McLennan almost 20 years ago.
“Professor McLennan really taught me to think like a scientist as a college student, and the ability to critically ask the proper questions for astrobiology is sometimes more important than trying to drill an answer,” Perl said. “Sometimes you have to take baby steps and that’s fine. But after a while, you need to learn when it’s time to take longer strides and take risks. And so McLennan really helped me to fine-tune what I was doing. He really set the expectations and bar high for everything that I learned from him. And that experience I had as an undergraduate, I bring those lessons to the six PhD students and postdocs I work with. That mentorship that I received — I want to give back to these students.”
Artistic Dreams Take Off
When Sabrina Thompson ’07 was a child, she loved to draw with no thoughts of what mysteries loomed above in the night sky, and certainly no idea that working as a navigation and mission design engineer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center would be in her future.
But a suggestion from her high school art teacher to look into engineering steered her to Stony Brook University, where she was accepted into the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program and Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program and began her studies in mechanical engineering.
While at Stony Brook, Thompson participated in internships every summer and came back to school eager to discover more. She knew then she was a lifelong learner and needed a career that would continually challenge her. Not quite knowing what path would provide those challenges, she went to graduate school to pursue aerospace engineering. It was at that time another internship through the NASA Academy put NASA on her radar.
As part of the NASA Academy, Thompson did multiple projects at several NASA centers. She was paired off with a mentor to do her own research but also had a team project with her peers in the program. “During this experience, I realized I wanted to work for NASA. I knew if I worked there, once I was done with one project, I could work on another one and learn something totally different. Maybe using the same skills, maybe not. But there’s so many unanswered questions that NASA aims to answer that there’s no way I could get bored and want to do anything else,” she said. “And it was important for me to be involved with something that contributed to society, something bigger than myself.”
After Thompson graduated with her master’s degree, she searched the NASA website and applied for a job and was offered one at Goddard. Now as a flight dynamics analyst, she designs and develops orbital trajectories for space missions. “I figured out how to get a science instrument from Earth to wherever it needs to go, whether it’s Saturn, Venus, Titan, wherever, in the solar system. In addition, my work can involve ground systems, where the spacecraft is in Earth’s orbit, and we have to track and do maneuver planning,” Thompson said.
She added that a future Earth science concept her department is exploring is using a constellation of satellites to learn more about climate change, clouds and aerosols. “Aerosols include dust particles, pollution and all the things that could alter the clouds, the climate and the ocean,” she said.
Another upcoming project is a mission launching in 2024 called PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem mission). “PACE will help us answer questions related to our oceans and how different types of phytoplankton and algae blooms are affecting the climate,” she said.
At the core of everything Thompson does is her commitment to making a difference, especially in the lives of young girls. “I’m an artist by nature so I try to find creative ways to expose young people to STEM through art. I don’t want them to have the same issue I had in high school, where I didn’t know what was possible for someone like me. I want them to know that there are people who exist that look like them who are in fields that they may have never seen themselves possibly entering,” she said.
In addition to the outreach Thompson does for NASA by visiting schools to tell her story on how she became an engineer, she started a program called STEMulating Art. Through it, she uses art to expose minorities to STEM through projects and workshops. Using her art, she found another way to generate more interest in STEM by creating Girl in Space Club, a street clothing brand, in 2018. The direct-to-consumer label features clothing and accessories with designs of girls as astronauts in an array of settings.
One new design she is working on may even change space travel as we know it. Thompson is now using her art expertise and experience in fashion design to work on solving another issue at NASA: developing a prototype suit for female astronauts to wear en route to space or underneath extravehicular activity suits. She explained that suits have been traditionally made for men and that caused a problem in 2019, when an all-female spacewalk had to be canceled due to a lack of proper fitting gear.
Research and development will take until at least the middle of 2023, but Thompson is up for the challenge. And who knows? If she achieves her other goal — becoming an astronaut — she might actually wear the space suit she designed on her flight. “I am a dreamer. But I don’t like to just dream. I like to work hard to see those dreams come to reality.”
Carolyn Porco ’74
If you regularly watch the Science Channel, chances are you have seen Carolyn Porco waxing poetically about the Cassini mission to explore Saturn and its moons. Porco, who earned her bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy at Stony Brook, was the imaging team leader for Cassini, working on the project from its inception in the 1990s to the moment it plummeted into Saturn’s atmosphere in 2017. One of the world’s leading planetary scientists, Porco has had a long and illustrious career, starting with her role as an imaging scientist for NASA’s Voyager missions to Jupiter and Saturn in the early 1980s. In 2010, she was awarded the Carl Sagan Medal, presented by the American Astronomical Society for Excellence in the Communication of Science to the Public. In 2012, she was named one of the 25 most influential people in space by Time magazine. Today, she continues to share her love of science and Saturn (and especially her favorite moon, Enceladus) with the public in lectures across the country and with students at the University of California at Berkeley, where she is a visiting scholar.
Michael Thorpe ’14, ’18
His next area is working with the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover. “I directly interpret the geochemical and mineralogical data that comes down from the rover. I recently published a paper that reconstructs the sedimentary history of a region of Gale crater on Mars and describe how lake and groundwater may have interacted around 3.5 billion years ago.”
And his last research theme is preparing for Mars Sample Return. “As a member of the MCSG, we work to plan for returning samples that are currently being collected by the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. Exploring Mars and preparing for samples to return one day is truly an out-of-this-world experience. I feel lucky to be in this role and just always excited for the next step.”
Thorpe credits Stony Brook with providing him with the tools that prepared him for this varied role, along with mentors such as Joel Hurowitz, an associate professor in the Department of Geosciences, who “helped shape a solid foundation in sedimentary studies but who also motivated me to follow my dreams.”
Chris Stubenrauch ’17
After earning bachelor’s degrees in atmospheric and oceanic sciences and earth and space sciences in 2017, Chris Stubenrauch soon found the perfect job that combined both his areas of expertise: space weather research physicist in the Moon to Mars Space Weather Analysis Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. That is where Stubenrauch is constantly monitoring the Sun for eruptions that may impact Earth or other NASA missions in the solar system.
“We use a variety of solar telescopes and other instruments to model how coronal mass ejections and solar energetic particle streams will travel through the heliosphere,” Stubenrauch said. “These phenomena have the ability to produce the vibrant atmospheric colors we see as the northern lights, but also can potentially damage satellites and other equipment in space.
“Space weather is a very multidisciplinary field, borrowing a lot of facets from astronomy and astrophysics but also terrestrial weather,” he continued. “My unique experience studying with Earth space sciences and atmospheric sciences areas simultaneously helped prepare me for the modeling aspects of space physics but also helped expose me to the rigorous mathematics involved with solar dynamics that we work with on a day-to-day basis.”
Erika Peters ’20
As a writer for NASA’s Orion Program, journalism graduate Erika Peters has a front-row seat to history as her job consists of telling the story of Orion, NASA’s newest spacecraft that will carry humans back to the moon under the Artemis program. Peters began her journey at NASA right after graduating from Stony Brook, working as an communications intern for a year before becoming the program writer for Orion. As part of her responsibilities, she wrote the Orion Reference Guide, a 130-page document offering a detailed look into the Orion spacecraft’s missions, and created the Artemis I press kit. This past fall, her focus has been on keeping the team and the world informed about the Artemis I launch, the first uncrewed test flight of the Orion spacecraft. Because of some technical issues and Hurricane Ian, the flight was delayed, but finally launched in mid-November. “I wear many hats in this role, including writing feature stories, creating video content, working on outreach events and helping run Orion’s social media,” she said. “I feel so grateful to be part of this exciting time for space exploration and work on a mission that means so much for humanity.”
Peters credits the School of Communication and Journalism with helping her hone her writing and interviewing skills and to learn how to create content that can be understood and appreciated by people with different levels of understanding. “My time at SBU also taught me that it’s important to be a jack of all trades. Alongside writing, I also photograph and create video content using the skills I learned from my media courses at SBU.”
Andrea Harrington ’09, ’13
Andrea Harrington, a Mars sample curator in the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division at NASA is working with the Mars 2020 mission team on how to preserve inorganic, organic and biological contamination knowledge samples vital to the success of the Mars Sample Return mission. The team will work on creating a special containment facility where scientists will be able to study Martian rock samples safely, not only to keep the samples from contaminating Earth, but also to ensure that Earth does not contaminate the samples. And while the samples aren’t expected to pose any threat, one can’t be too careful with the unknown.
Harrington, who earned her master’s and PhD in geoscience at SBU, has been touring facilities across the country that handled potentially dangerous biological samples to see how they maintain ultra-clean rooms or manufacture equipment for that purpose. She and her team will use what they have learned to help find a NASA facility that could best be optimized to keep our planet safe. With the Mars Sample Return mission set for the 2030s, they will have about 10 years to prepare the facility.