Maria Zuber is one of the hardest working scientists in planetary science, being a part of six different space missions to explore the Solar System. Currently, she’s the lead investigator for NASA’s GRAIL mission.
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Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast Episode 361, Maria Zuber. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, your weekly facts based journey through the Cosmos. We help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know.
My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today, and with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the Director of CosmoQuest. Hey, Pamela, how are you doing?
Pamela Gay: I’m doing well. How are you doing, Frazier?
Fraser Cain: Great. We’re recording this just moments before Newtonmas. So – which is December 25th.
Pamela Gay: There are three days of Die Hard remaining.
Fraser Cain: Three days of Die Hard remaining.
Pamela Gay: There’s the five Die Hard episodes. And instead of the 12 days of Christmas or the ten days of Cards against Humanity, we’re celebrating the five days of Die Hard in our house.
Fraser Cain: Nerds. But I know the feeling. Now, do we have any announcements this week, any you want to mention, you want to plug?
Pamela Gay: If you need a year-end tax donation help, we can provide you a tax donation in the United States through SIUE for your donations to Cosmo Quest in the European Union, for your donations to 365 Days of Astronomy. And you know, Astronomy Cast is also here in the US, and we’re just trying to figure out how to make the next year happen. And we are losing some of our sponsors, so if your company is interested in sponsoring our shows, drop me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fraser Cain: Perfect. Okay. Let’s get cracking.
Maria Zuber is one of the hardest working scientists in planetary exploration. Being a part of six different space missions to explore the solar system, and currently, she’s the lead investigator for NASA’s ground mission. All right, Pamela, so who is Maria Zuber and why did you select her?
Pamela Gay: I selected her because she’s someone that I think no one knows her name well enough. When you ask for big names in Planetary Science, Allen Stern’s name always comes up. Karen Porka’s name always comes up.
Fraser Cain: Steve Squires.
Pamela Gay: Yeah. There’s all these – Jim Bell – there’s just certain names that come up over and over and over again. But then when you go to a conference and you look to see who takes the podium over and over again to present research session after session, object after object, it’s this woman from MIT. And I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about her. And unfortunately, I’ve never actually heard anyone say a word about her.
But as you pointed out, she’s part of a large number of missions, and I’ve simply been consistently impressed with what she does and how well she carries herself and carries her mission. So I wanted to bring her up as part of the Series.
Fraser Cain: All right. So, let’s start with the missions because I think that’s – you know, that’s where her entire body of work has – has really recently really played out. So where do you want to – which mission do you want to start with?
Pamela Gay: Well, might as well start for the one where she is principal investigator. And this is the NASA grail mission, two different spacecraft, Ebb and Flow, as they were named by people volunteering names all across the United States. These are two little spacecraft that are mapping the gravity profile of the moon by flying very low to its surface, sometimes just a few kilometers above, usually about 20 kilometers above.
And the way they’re mapping out the gravity is they’re maintaining laser contact between themselves and when they’re within viewability of the planet earth, laser contact with the planet earth. And these lasers are used to very carefully measure the timing between the different spacecraft, so they’re able to see how the orbits vary as they go over more high gravity and low gravity areas of the moon.
Fraser Cain: Right. They’ve done this with earth as well, and it’s a wonderful experiment because the two spacecraft – I’m holding out a hand so unfortunately the podcast listeners won’t be able to see this – but the two spacecraft know how far each other are apart with absolute precision with these lasers that they’re shooting back and forth.
And then, as they go over the various just like craters and pockets of more density, one spacecraft gets pulled a little faster than the other one. And they measure a distance between them. And then, the other one is able to sort of come back and catch up. And then, they triangulate with the earth. And they’ve produced these beautiful images. They call them – what do they call – GEO –
Pamela Gay: Gravity maps, geo maps.
Fraser Cain: Geo map, yeah. And it kind of looks like a potato when you – because they’ll sort of – they’ll make the – they’ll artificially change the scale. Right? And so, you can see sort of this great, big lumpy earth and this great big lumpy – in this case, the lumpy moon that shows you sort of where the pockets of high density are. And I always just imagine this mysterious hidden treasure in those places of higher density and gravity.
Pamela Gay: And what’s amazing is when you start combining these geodesies with the laser altimetry, which tells us exactly how high and low the different surface bits are. You start to be able to get this very careful map of, well; of course this area has more gravity. It has a mountain. So there’s more stuff.
But this other area, it has a deep crater. All of that material is compacted so you’re still getting higher gravity but now you’re getting the higher gravity from an area that’s compacted. It’s all sorts of neat things that come out where you can tell the difference between just a nice normal dense region, a nice normal not so dense region and then all of the complexities that incur from, well, cratering events in the past.
And this is a complicated mission. Here on Earth when we map out gravity, we have the benefit of being able to be in constant contact with the spacecraft as it flies over the Earth. With the moon, there’s that annoying backside, dark side, as it’s locally called, where we can’t see a spacecraft. And here on Earth, they do it from a much higher altitude because of our atmosphere.
If you think about it, the occasional 20 kilometers – well, the often 20-some-odd kilometers up that these spacecraft are orbiting at, well, we’ve now had humans jump from balloons, from higher altitudes down to the surface of the Earth. And these spacecraft have gotten as low as seven kilometer while functionally carrying on their mission and not trying to commit suicide. And those start to be altitudes that you expect jetliners to be at and we’re orbiting spacecraft close to the moon at those altitudes.
Fraser Cain: Well, but the downside of doing that kind of a mission with that low altitude is it’s not stable and as the spacecraft have learned. Because they crashed them into the surface back in 2012.
Pamela Gay: And we’re still working to figure out all of the science and so it’s one of these things of, yes, we did sacrifice the spacecraft in order to get a wealth of science. It is going to take us still several more years to completely untangle and fully understand by combining it with data that we’re getting from the lunar reconnaissance orbiter, which is another mission that Maria Zuber was involved in.
She, on that particular mission, was the investigative lead of the laser ranger. This is a set of lasers that will fire from the spacecraft down to the surface of the moon and measure the amount of time and the quality of the return of the laser light as it comes back up to the spacecraft. This allows them to get ideas of the texture of the surface while also very precisely measuring the distance to the surface. So this is very complimentary work, where she’s combining the laser ranging work. She was Deputy Principle Investigator on the instrument itself, the lunar orbiter laser altimeter.
And so, she’s put all of these different positions together from principle investigator of one spacecraft to Deputy Principle Investigator of an instrument and investigation lead for the science to really give us a deep – literally, deep understanding of the lunar surface.
Fraser Cain: Actually – I said in my intro that she’s been on six missions – actually, she’s been in ten. She’s been a team member on ten NASA planetary missions.
Pamela Gay: So going all the way back, she did laser altimetry with Mars observer. She did gravity and altimetry team for Clementine. She was Deputy Principle Investigator on the orbiter laser altimeter on Mars Global Surveyor. She was Team Leader and Laser Ranging Investigator for near – the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous Mission, Co-Investigator and lead of the Geo Physics investigation on NASA Messenger, which is where I first encountered her.
She was Team Lead for the Radio Science Gravity Investigation, a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Co-Investigator on Dawn’s [inaudible] [00:12:05] to Vesta and Series, Deputy Principle Investigator as we started with the lunar orbiter laser altimetry instrument on Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. So she just mission after mission after mission has done this consistent and amazing body of work on mapping out the surfaces and the gravity of rocky bodies all over our solar system.
Fraser Cain: And the youngest of the people that we’ve been profiling so far. She’s only in her mid-50s, which is just amazing to have that much sort of under your belt already at that age.
Pamela Gay: She’s no nonsense. She’s just I’m gonna get the science done and she does all of this while – she’s not just like every day faculty member. She’s the Vice President for Research in the EA Grinswald Professor of Geo Physics, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. So this is a woman who has massive bureaucratic responsibilities at one of the world’s top research institutions, is working on a large number of NASA spacecraft and is still churning out amazing research with all of the resources that she has access to.
Fraser Cain: So how did she get her start then? Let’s go through her resume.
Pamela Gay: Well, she went to the University of Pennsylvania, graduated in 1980 so started with regular good ole state education. She went on Brown University, which is kind of one of the big universities that you see Geo Physics people passing through.
She finished with her Ph.D. in 1986 from Brown University. She did her dissertation on unstable deformation and layered media, which I think is the fanciest way I have ever encountered for someone to phrase. Soil comes in layers. Sometimes it’s not flat. And that’s basically what that translates into is she studied what are the factors that lead to stratified surfaces [inaudible] [00:14:42] wrinkled and ridged and folded and all of the different things that occur on rocky bodies.
From there, she went on to – she’s worked a whole variety of different places from the National Research Council to she spent time at Goddard Space Flight Center, to being a professor at Johns Hopkins University where she was for many, many years. And then, in ’95 she went to Massachusetts’s Institute of Technology. So she’s very much an East Coast kind of woman, which I have to respect as being an East Coaster trapped in the mid-West myself.
And it’s just one of those resumes that when you download it, it’s over 20 pages. And she’s removed everything that isn’t essential. It is strictly peer reviewed national and international service and awesomeness.
Fraser Cain: And so, what then – I mean, I know that she serves on a pile of boards and has all of these responsibilities, in addition – so what are some of the other sort of roles that she plays?
Pamela Gay: So she’s also – or she was until 2012 – a guest investigator at the Department of Geology and Geo Physics Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. So she combines when she’s studying rocky bodies trying to understand our own planet Earth with working to understand Mars, the moon, various asteroids, looking at Mercury. And she’s also been a visiting scholar at Radcliffe Institute across the city of Boston. And she – as I said, she spent numerous years at Johns Hopkins University in a variety of different roles.
Fraser Cain: That’s awesome. So let’s talk a bit – well, one question which I’ve been asking you with every person that we’ve been talking about – have you had a chance to meet her?
Pamela Gay: Yes. I’m pretty sure she has absolutely no memory of me. I’ve seen her give I don’t know how many talks at the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference and the European Planetary Sciences Conference. And I’ve more than once bumped into her and done the requisite that was a very good talk, and she probably has absolutely no memory of me.
Fraser Cain: As you’re attempting to – you’re squealing inside and she’s –
Pamela Gay: Yeah. When you go to these conferences there are certain speakers that you listen to because you know they’re going to convey a great deal of information that you need to know. And there are those that you know are going to convey a beautiful story that is worth listening to.
And then, there are those that are simply going to do the very clinical but – I’m trying to figure out how to say this correctly – it’s the journalistic just the facts, ma’am, kind of – or I guess detective work just the facts that cuts through the chase and does it in a way where you’re captivated but none of the flowery language or special fonts are required. And she’s one of those people that does the just the facts talk that enraptures you with how much information is coming out beautifully conveyed.
Fraser Cain: So the next – I think we talked about the grail mission. We talked about a couple of other missions. The big one that’s coming up now is Dawn is gonna be arriving at Series, and really soon now. I mean, we are not far away –
Pamela Gay: This summer, six months away.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. For another one of these missions that’s been out there. And we’ve been following it for years and years, but it’s already [inaudible] [00:19:02] which I know you had a lot of work in helping with the education and outreach and mapping [inaudible]. So what is the work that’s gonna be happening with Series?
Pamela Gay: It’s in many ways a rinse and a repeat look at new worlds. At a certain level you want to replicate the same experiments over and over and over and very controlled parameters. Well, we can’t really purposely turn the gravity on and off on an asteroid or very one particular mineral in its surface. But what we can do is visit a variety of different worlds, perform the exact same experiments on those variety of different worlds and see what we can learn by letting nature vary the parameters.
And this is something that you really see occurring in Dr. Zuber’s research where first we went to Vesta, which is on the dry side of the water line that is in our solar system that is kind of the line of demarcation that divides where worlds could form and have water with the outer worlds and where the young sun would have essentially dried out all the volatiles while the worlds were still young.
Series formed on the opposite side of that water line from Vesta. We’ve orbited Vesta. We’ve studied its geology to the best of our abilities. We’ve imaged it in high resolution looking to try and understand the folding, the bouldering, the deformation of craters, the way [inaudible] [00:20:50] have formed. And now we’re going out to Series, where it’s admittedly a bit larger of a world, but more importantly, it formed on the other side of that water line, not too different a position compared to the rest of the asteroids. It’s still part of the asteroid belt. It’s just the other side of that asteroid belt.
And it has the potential to have volatiles left over from its formation. So now we’re going to replicate the imaging sets that were done, the spectroscopy, all of the different experiments to try and understand how does that one change in parameter along with the change in mass affect the way one of these small worlds is formed.
Fraser Cain: And so, we’re gonna get – I mean, as it relates to the work Dr. Zuber is doing – we are gonna be getting this gravity map. Up to some extent we’re gonna get – understand the bid of the surface geology, the density, of Series and how it compares to what we learned with Vesta. Right?
Pamela Gay: Exactly. And this is also going on to be compared with work that she’s done at Mercury with Messenger, work that’s been done at Mars with Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Surveyor and work that is still being done by Lenore Reconnaissance Orbiter with its laser altimeter and work that is still being completely analyzed that came from the Ebb and Flow grail spacecraft.
Fraser Cain: Do you ever – I mean, I know you’re an Astronomer. You focus on sort of Astro Physics Astronomy. Do you ever wish you were a planetary scientist? Do you ever wish you had gone down that path? Was that ever a possibility for you?
Pamela Gay: So I have to admit that I am someone that when I discovered how much organic chemistry was involved in Geo Physics sort of went, “Oh, dear God, no.” And this simply has to do with we are all better and worse at different things. And for me, proper nouns is not a skill set I have. And organic chemistry the formation of complex molecules, the mineralogy, all of those things were things that I simply have no passion for and instead sort of have a desire to go, “Please. I will listen. I will enjoy your analysis. Don’t make me do that.”
The skill set that these people have, they have almost the same physics background I have, less plasmas. But they also have to know so much chemistry, so much hydrology. And whereas in Astrophysics it’s all about the P-Chem, which I love P-Chem, how atoms interact, how quantum states emerge and evolve in different pressures and temperatures, magnetic fields play a completely different role in astronomy.
That need to understand things that form molecules, that form complex molecules, that form molecules that interact and form in different geometries, that’s a skill set I don’t have and didn’t want to have and would have gone into animal behavior before I went into organic chemistry if needed to – there are so many other paths I would have gone down first.
Fraser Cain: Really?
Pamela Gay: But I love learning what these people learn and that’s the great thing about what you and I do is I’m sure there’s things that you look at that the scientists that we read the results from have done and you’re just like, “Whoa. So glad that wasn’t me.”
Fraser Cain: Yeah.
Pamela Gay: And so much respect for the people who have gone out and done this detailed work.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. So we’re gonna probably wrap this up pretty shortly, but one thing that I highly recommend people do is they go and check out Dr. Zuber’s resume. And I’m sure this is the same document that we’re both looking at. And I’m not sure how many pages it is, 30 or 40 pages?
Pamela Gay: 27 pages.
Fraser Cain: 27 pages, that’s right. That’s the one. Okay. Great. And so, just for example, professional involvement is a full page of – no, two pages, right? And things like President’s Commission on Implementation of the United States exploration policy in 2004, the program committee for the MIT Darwin Bicentennial Conference in 2009. Like I have never in my life seen a body of work so well documented and so sort of laid out in this way that I think when people ask us like how can you get to be in a career in Astronomy, a career in Space, what kinds of things should you do?
Look up Maria Zuber’s resume because it is an action plan to see what a person who has really thrown herself 100 percent at this question has generated. It tells you the kinds of research that she’s worked on, the kinds of professional community she’s been a part of, the awards that she’s won. This is – this is what it takes and she is like the perfect example of it.
Pamela Gay: And something that I deeply – again, I don’t really even have the word for it – deeply appreciate seems like kind of the wrong word – about her CV, her Curriculum Vita resume, for those of you in normal jobs outside of academia. I know that I over the years have begun to drop off older things from my CV. It’s like, “Ah, no one’s gonna care about the awards I won as an undergrad. No one’s gonna care about” – she hasn’t done that. So this is really one of those things that you can look at and go, “Hey, I got that award when I was her age. That’s kinda cool.”
And there’s this ability to go through and see how everything builds one thing upon the other and how all of us start with very similar beginnings. And it’s what we choose to do as we go along. It’s also interesting to look at how her publications have changed in terms of as an early career scientist if you scroll all the way back in her stuff, it’s first author, first author, first author, first author.
And then she starts getting more and more involved in teams and you see her students taking the first authorship role more and more often and that evolution to being last author as she became a team lead. All these small things that tell you so much about who the person is and leave nothing to the imagination, it’s just kind of awesome.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. No. I counted 28 papers published in 2014 of which she wasn’t the lead author on any of them. She was part of the team, but then as you said, you go back to her first papers back in 1980 – in the 1980s. And she’s all the first author, so that is – that is the evolution that a working scientist makes as you become more and more of a team leader and a manager, as opposed to working hard in your office on your research to helping a team take advantage of your knowledge and experience to get the best science they can, so yeah.
Pamela Gay: And I just love that she includes that first paper she wrote as, I’m guessing it was as an undergrad with her advisor that’s on the Virgo Cluster. It’s completely not related to anything else in her research, but it’s a paper she did while she was an undergraduate. So it’s there.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. So again, if you have any interest at all in trying to create a lifelong career in science, base science or science, check out her resume. Because that should be your blueprint for success.
Pamela Gay: And I think she’s probably my No. 1 person on the list of amazing women in science nobody has ever heard about.
Fraser Cain: Right. Okay. Well, next week we’re gonna talk about somebody that I hope everybody has heard about, which is gonna be Dr. Carolyn Porka who works on the Cassini Mission.
Pamela Gay: And on New Horizons.
Fraser Cain: Among other things, yeah, among everything.
Pamela Gay: Yeah.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. So we’ll be talking about Carolyn Porka, who I think both of us have had a chance to talk to, so.
Pamela Gay: Yes.
Fraser Cain: Very cool. Okay. Well, thank you very much, Pamela. And we’ll talk to you next week.
Pamela Gay: Okay. Sounds good.
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