Humankind is poised to make tremendous advances in space exploration and travel within the next 15 years. A number of Ephs are leading the way.
Imagine a high-resolution telescope that uses X-rays to “see” inside a black hole. Or a fleet of tiny satellites that inspect the surface of a planet before a larger craft sets down. Or a remote-controlled probe that collects soil samples and shoots 3D photos and videos in an uncharted region of Mars. Or medical advances that clear the way for humans to travel to galaxies far, far away.
Such innovations and technologies are within reach, and a number of Williams alumni and faculty are on the front lines of developing them. Among them is astrophysicist Laura Brenneman ’99, whose pioneering research has expanded our understanding of black holes. Joseph Shoer ’06, a spaceflight engineer, is adapting small, disposable satellites to capture detailed images of the moon’s surface, and Joseph Gangestad ’06, an orbital mechanics expert, is behind the calculations that keep satellites like Shoer’s from crashing into one another. Researchers Tim McConnochie ’98, Kathryn Stack Morgan ’08 and Tina Seeger ’16 are playing prominent roles on the Mars Curiosity and 2020 rovers. And flight surgeon Robert Sanders ’90 is developing high-tech space suits and medical protocols, while Williams biology professor Steven Swoap is studying torpor in mice to uncover links to human hibernation—all of which will be useful for long-distance space travel.
The science and technology central to their work can seem mind-bending—the stuff of science fiction. Yet these Ephs and others are making sense of it all, enjoying the thrill of discovery in ways large and small. As Sanders puts it: “One of the best parts of my job is problem-solving. I am part of a mission where I know what I do makes a difference.”
Williams has been punching above its weight in fields tied to space research since 1836. That year, Albert Hopkins, a Williams graduate and professor of mathematics and philosophy who also taught astronomy and French, began designing, funding and, with his students, helping to construct the observatory that bears his name.
Hopkins Observatory, now the oldest in the country, was among the factors that drew Laura Brenneman ’99 to Williams to study the stars. Others included state-of-the-art telescopes atop the Science Center and a powerhouse astronomy faculty consisting of Karen Kwitter, Steven Souza and department chair Jay Pasachoff, who each year travels with students to view and research solar eclipses.
“There aren’t a lot of institutions that boast those kinds of resources,” says Brenneman, who went with Pasachoff and a team of researchers to observe an eclipse in Aruba.
A connection she made as a student led her to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland to work on high-energy astrophysics and to study black holes. These hot, swirling centers of matter have a gravitational field so strong, not even light can escape. They’re among “the most extreme and violent phenomena in the universe,” Brenneman says.
Using X-ray telescopes orbiting Earth, she was able to calculate for the first time ever how fast black holes spin by measuring the speed at which gas closest to the event horizon—the point at which light can’t escape—revolves around the black hole.
“It’s like placing eggbeaters in thick batter,” she says. “Spinning the beaters causes the batter to spin, too.”
Adds Brenneman, who published a short book on her findings in 2013, “My interest in X-ray astronomy coincided with a golden age in the field.”
Now an astrophysicist at Harvard & Smithsonian’s Center for Astrophysics, Brenneman is in high demand as a collaborator on other missions involving new, more powerful telescopes. She is a co-investigator for XRISM, a Japanese X-ray astronomy satellite to be launched in 2022, and she’s helping to develop the science plan for Athena, a European X-ray telescope set to launch in the early 2030s to investigate black holes at the centers of galaxies, among many other areas of astrophysical research.
She’s also co-investigator and scientific operations manager of Arcus, a U.S.-based X-ray telescope carrying the highest-resolution grating spectrometer that will have ever flown. Brenneman likens the instrument to “a fancy, high-tech prism that will refract color very, very finely.”
Proposed for launch in 2023, Arcus will give scientists the ability to analyze objects ranging in size from supermassive black holes to fine bits of interstellar dust in order to determine traits such as temperature, chemical abundance and ionization. Brenneman and her colleagues expect it to yield evidence of hidden baryons—subatomic particles that are predicted to lie in hot haloes of gas surrounding galaxies and star clusters. All of which may shed light on how galaxies form and change over time.
Arcus, says Brenneman, is “literally going to be a hundred times more sensitive than our current best instruments in this energy range.”
In June 2020, NASA is scheduled to launch its new Orion spacecraft in hopes of paving the way for future travel to the moon and deep space. In addition to ricocheting around the moon for a month, the un-crewed vessel will accompany a fleet of 13 small satellites called CubeSats, each roughly the size of a shoe box, to test propulsion and communication technologies and capture images.
Joseph Shoer ’06, a spaceflight engineer at Lockheed Martin, is working on one CubeSat fitted with an experimental infrared camera. Images from the camera are expected to help researchers better understand the interaction between the moon’s surface and solar particles.
“We want to prove that even tiny satellites can take useful images in deep space,” Shoer says.
A physics major at Williams, he worked with Professor Jeff Strait to investigate laser pulses in fiber-optic wires. Shoer says he learned important and “very translatable” skills in Strait’s lab, including “being systematic and careful when working with hardware.”
Shoer earned a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering at Cornell University, where he first experimented with using CubeSats as modules assembled into larger spacecraft.
Small and disposable, CubeSats require less fuel to launch and are less expensive to build than a typical satellite. But they pose interesting design challenges, especially the deeper they go into space, Shoer says. As one example, a satellite traveling far from the sun requires large solar panels to gather energy. Fitting large panels onto a CubeSat isn’t feasible, so a different solution is required.
“It’s a balancing act,” Shoer says. “Nothing about physics changes when you go from a van-sized satellite down to one the size of a briefcase.”
About 1,000 CubeSats already orbit the Earth, launched by governments, universities and corporations to gather climate data, monitor weather patterns and track hurricanes and forest fires. They are among approximately 4,600 known satellites currently in orbit—2,000 of which are operational.
With all that equipment winging around at 15,000 miles per hour, plus what’s estimated to be hundreds of thousands of pieces of man-made debris of all sizes floating through space, there’s little room for error when tracking satellites’ movement. That’s where Joseph Gangestad ’06 comes in. An astronomy major at Williams, he now works for the Aerospace Corporation, a national nonprofit that operates a federally funded research and development center and provides technical guidance to the U.S. Air Force, NASA and other civil agencies.
Gangestad specializes in orbital mechanics, using complex mathematics to calculate satellites’ courses and determine their positions with high precision—within 20 feet for each microsecond. Among his recent projects, he helped develop the orbits for NASA’sTransiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which seeks out signs of planets just outside our solar system. TESS already has identified three new exoplanets, the closest of which is 49 light years away.
His calculations can also be used to help coordinate constellations of multiple CubeSats, which can work together to sample a single spot on a planet’s surface every few minutes. A larger satellite would need hours to orbit around a planet to perform the same task.
In the future, Shoer and Gangestad say, CubeSats can serve as scouts, finding safe places for spaceships to land on Earth’s moon or other planets. Already NASA scientists are exploring the possibility of sending a constellation of CubeSats to Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter, to survey the planet’s surface in preparation for a future landing by a larger spacecraft.
“Instead of sending one gigantic satellite, you could have a mother ship with lots of little ones,” Gangestad says. “With that ubiquity, you’d be able to investigate multiple places at once.”
CubeSat technology might also translate into tiny, portable devices that astronauts can one day carry with them onto a planet’s surface.
“An astronaut exploring the moon or Mars might unclip the device from their backpack and chuck it out there to pick up samples or take photos,” Shoer says. “In the end, it could make the whole mission better.”
A trio of Ephs—Tim McConnochie ’98, Kathryn Stack Morgan ’08 and Tina Seeger ’16—are playing important roles in the ongoing Mars Curiosity rover mission. They’re also looking ahead to 2020, when NASA will launch a new, more sophisticated rover to explore a different part of the red planet.
McConnochie studied astrophysics and economics at Williams and then joined the Federal Reserve. After a year, he changed careers, joining NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to study lunar ice. From there he went on to receive a Ph.D. at Cornell University, where he took part in the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission. Though the robotic spacecraft completed its primary work—including searching for evidence that Mars might once have been able to support life—it continues to orbit the red planet and send data back to researchers.
In 2006, McConnochie moved to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center as a postdoc, joining the Curiosity rover team in 2012. Among the rover’s many instruments is ChemCam, situated at the top of its long mast. ChemCam was designed to fire a laser at an area of rocks or soil less than an inch wide, allowing researchers searching for clues that ancient Mars’ environment supported life to analyze the elements in vaporized molecules. The instrument can also operate without its laser, and McConnochie and his colleagues realized that, with the laser off, they could aim ChemCam at the atmosphere and gather useful data.
Experimenting with this capability “led me to very accidentally realize I could measure water vapor and oxygen,” McConnochie says.
Data he collected via ChemCam helped show that, every night, more than half the near-surface water vapor in Mars’ atmosphere is being removed by adsorption, a process by which water molecules stick to the surface in cold temperatures. The process could be the key to providing a water supply for humans traveling to Mars in the future, says McConnochie, who will continue his research during the 2020 mission using the new rover’s SuperCam, which expands ChemCam’s features to include a laser that can be fired longer distances and tools to analyze unvaporized molecules directly.
Mars is also the focus of Stack Morgan’s work, thanks, in part, to a “life changing” tutorial at Williams. She came to college planning to study astrophysics. During her sophomore year, she took Professor Rónadh Cox’s Planetary Geology, in which students hypothesized about geological processes on other planets using remotely captured images and chemical and spectral data. Stack Morgan says she was hooked and decided to major in geosciences and astronomy instead.
She continued her studies at Caltech, conducting research and creating geological maps based on orbital images of the surface of Mars. Her work, which included searching for evidence of water in Mars’ sedimentary rock, made her an obvious choice to join the Curiosity team. After the Mini Cooper-sized rover landed in the Gale crater in 2012, she was responsible for planning Curiosity’s routes and determining the best places for it to stop and investigate, based on her maps. She also drove the rover and lived on “Mars time” for three months, syncing her working hours with those on the red planet, whose days are 40 minutes longer than Earth days.
“You wake up, and you are seeing a new piece of Mars no one has ever seen before,” she says of the experience.
Stack Morgan completed her Ph.D. in 2014 and now works at the JPL, which runs the Curiosity mission, using the rover’s mass spectrometer to detect organic molecules including carbon, nitrogen and oxygen as well as minerals such as sulfate and clay that depend on water for their formation. In addition, she serves as the deputy project scientist on the Mars 2020 rover mission.
Not long after Stack Morgan graduated from Williams, Seeger arrived at the college and forged a similar path. She, too, took Cox’s Planetary Geology tutorial and calls it a “turning point” in her academic career. Seeger also majored in astronomy and geosciences, and she calls Stack Morgan “a legend in our department.”
“She drives the Mars rover,” Seeger says. “As a student, it was the coolest thing I had ever heard.”
Seeger’s senior thesis on the moons of Jupiter captured the attention of a Caltech professor who invited her to be his laboratory technician. She began working on Curiosity, studying conglomerate rocks on Mars for signs of past water—and working alongside Stack Morgan.
Soon Seeger was the “Keeper of the Plan,” sharing her laptop screen with scientists all over the world so they could drag and drop their work into the research queue. Now at Western Washington University, she is poring over kaleidoscopic images of rocks and soil photographed by an instrument called Mastcam, which is mounted below ChemCam on Curiosity’s mast. Her research involves identifying large-scale patterns that may improve understanding of how weather patterns, including dust storms, have moved the soil from one place to another. The 2020 rover will also have a mast camera, Mastcam-Z, with the ability to take 3D photographs and shoot video.
The 2020 rover features other enhancements, including a robotic drill to take samples of soil and rock and store them on the planet for a future mission to retrieve. Once the samples are back on Earth, researchers will be able to examine them for signs of biological signatures or fossils to confirm that life once existed on Mars.
“Most likely it would be microbial life,” Stack Morgan says. “We’d be extremely lucky and very surprised if we found the martian equivalent of fossils like trilobites or dinosaur bones.”
Scientists will also be testing another instrument on the new rover called MOXIE, which converts carbon dioxide into oxygen—a nod to eventual human travel.
MOXIE “could produce oxygen to breathe,” says Stack Morgan. “But, more importantly, it could produce oxygen fuel for us to leave Mars and come home.”
Preparing for Liftoff
NASA is planning a crewed spaceflight back to the moon in the late 2020s. If all goes well, the agency may be able to send people to Mars—or, more likely, its moon Phobos—by 2033, when the red planet will be at its closest to Earth in 30 years. The journey could take nine to 10 months each way, and NASA flight surgeon Robert Sanders ’90 and Williams biology professor Steven Swoap are conducting research and developing technologies to get astronauts there as safely as possible.
Sanders is a crew health and safety flight surgeon at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and medical director at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory—a pool four stories deep and large enough to contain a full-sized space station—which simulates a zero-gravity environment. Astronauts in training there can don a spacesuit and experience every aspect of a six-and-a-half-hour spacewalk.
Sanders describes himself as a “dive bum” who began scuba diving at age 14. A theater major at Williams, he also worked as a part-time emergency medical technician, helped organize a scuba club and taught diving classes through the physical education department. After graduation, he worked on set design with the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York and then moved west to work in a dive shop, as an Antarctic research diver and then as a first-aid person/set medic on film and TV productions. He went on to receive a medical degree at Rosalind Franklin University in Chicago.
Today Sanders is an expert in hyperbaric medicine—the treatment of patients who develop decompression sickness, known as “the bends.” Decompression sickness can occur when a diver surfaces too quickly, causing nitrogen that dissolved in the blood during the dive
to form bubbles that can lead to pain, weakness, heart attack and stroke.
The same thing can happen in the vacuum of space. An astronaut must decompress before leaving a spaceship or space station to make repairs or do a spacewalk. Currently, spacesuits are pressurized to 4.3 pounds per square inch (psi), about a third of Earth’s atmospheric pressure.
“Just to do a spacewalk takes four hours to de-nitrogenate,” says Sanders, who’s overseeing tests on new spacesuits that can be pressurized to 8 psi, cutting the time an astronaut needs to depressurize to as little as 10 minutes.
He’s also researching the effects of fluid shifts inside the body due to zero gravity, which may cause vision and sinus problems as well as excess fluid in the lungs. And he’s addressing other challenges on long missions, including providing medical care.
“We usually don’t have a physician on board, so everything we do now is through telemedicine,” Sanders says.
But telemedicine isn’t always viable, since it would take half an hour for a signal from Earth to reach a spaceship on Mars. So Sanders and his colleagues are developing computer-assisted procedures to help astronauts provide care themselves.
Another issue on long missions involves medication. Most drugs expire within a few years of their date of manufacture.
“If a Mars mission is three years, what does that mean for the Advil we send with them?” Sanders asks.
Other risks and challenges associated with a months-long flight are easy to imagine—providing food and water, managing waste of all kinds and keeping astronauts’ bodies and minds active to avoid deterioration of muscles, bones and brains. But what if those issues could be avoided altogether by putting the humans into states of suspended animation? That’s a question Swoap and other researchers are trying to answer.
The idea isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem, says Swoap, who came to Williams in 1996 and who studies the connections between hibernation and the dive response in mice. When their caloric intake is reduced and the temperature gets cold, mice enter a state of torpor. Their heart rates slow, and their internal body temperatures and metabolisms drop. The reverse happens when temperatures rise and caloric intake increases.
A mouse has a similar physiological response as soon as its nose is submerged in water. Called the dive response, it’s something humans experience as well. When people dive under water, their heart rates, blood pressure and desire to breathe drop quickly and drastically.
“If we can figure out all the pathways activated during the dive response in mice, and if they turn out to be the same as those activated during torpor—which we’re also studying—we might find a way to activate those same pathways in humans,” says Swoap, whose research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health. “This could ultimately lead to finding a way to trigger human hibernation.”
Swoap and his students are also studying cyclohexyladenosine, a modified version of one of the components of DNA. When it binds to cells in the heart or central nervous system, the compound sends a signal to slow the heart rate and metabolism. Another promising avenue to bringing on torpor is 2-deoxyglucose, a modified sugar molecule that the body can’t break down, outcompeting regular glucose and starving cells for energy.
“The brain sees this as a starvation signal and induces hibernation,” Swoap says.
In mice, both compounds cause torpor, which can be reversed with no ill effects. Whether they can be used similarly in humans remains to be seen.
“The optimist in me says that we will have some information about how animals hibernate within the next three years,” Swoap says. “But the applicability of it and safety in humans is a big question mark. I don’t know if it will happen by 2033, but I’m optimistic it could.”
That optimism pervades the work of all these Ephs—and many others—who are making meaningful progress in understanding life beyond our solar system.
Says Brenneman, “We humans have a universal desire to probe beyond ourselves when we look into the night sky and see stars and nebulas and ask ourselves where they came from. Looking at the extremes of the universe can help answer those big questions.”
Michael Blanding ’95 is a Boston-based writer and the author ofThe Map Thief (Gotham Books, June 2014).