Heidi Hammel: Ushering In Hubble’s Successor – The James Webb Space Telescope
Planetary astronomer Heidi Hammel — a world authority on the planets Neptune and Uranus — is known for her many achievements probing the cosmos, often using the famous Hubble Space Telescope in her work.
For instance, in 1994 when comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter, Heidi was the leader of the ground team that analyzed photos of the event from the Hubble Space Telescope. She was also a member of the research group that first spotted Neptune’s Great Dark Spot (a raging storm as big as Earth) with the Voyager spacecraft, and led the Hubble team that later documented the Great Dark Spot’s disappearance.
Today she is involved in another milestone: helping to develop the next great space observatory that will succeed Hubble — the James Webb Space Telescope which is scheduled to be launched later in 2018. “As much as I love Hubble, it’s time to build an even more sophisticated tool that will enable us to see new things,” says Heidi, the Executive Vice President of AURA, Inc. (The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy), a consortium of 39 U.S. universities as well as educational and non-profit institutions, and seven international affiliates. AURA operates world-class astronomical observatories including the Hubble Space Telescope, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, the National Solar Observatory, and the Gemini Observatory.
In her post at AURA, Heidi is working with the team that is planning the development and launching of the Webb Telescope. “Webb will be able to probe regions of the cosmos that are simply not visible to Hubble,” she explains. “It’s bigger and it will be tuned to wavelengths that Hubble can’t really see. With Webb, we have the potential to answer questions about the origins of just about everything in the universe.
No doubt, the Webb Telescope, in addition to giving astronomers greater insight into other mysteries of the universe, promises to afford Heidi enhanced observations of her two favorite planetary bodies: Neptune and Uranus (‘The Ice Giants’). Often considered by the lay public as two of the “least exciting” planets, she says they are anything but that. “These planets are not dull. They change a lot,” she says. “Actually, they are great for a researcher. Because they are located at the outer reaches of the solar system, they’ve been less studied than nearer planets. So whenever I make an observation, anything I find is brand new.”
Particularly intriguing is Uranus, she explains. “With Uranus, now we’re rewriting the textbooks on it. Our recent observations are so counter to what we originally thought. There is all sorts of connective activity going on there, which 20 years ago we didn’t see. We once thought of Uranus’s atmosphere as pretty much dead. But it’s not.”
It was not until her sophomore year in college (when she took an astronomy class as an elective) that Heidi thought seriously about pursuing planetary exploration as a career. However the seed may have been planted years earlier by happenstance during road trips with her parents while growing up in California, she admits. “I would get very car sick during these trips and to distract myself, especially at night, I stared out the window and started recognizing patterns in the sky. I learned the constellations because it helped get my mind off the fact that I felt absolutely awful in the car.”
Following high school, she was admitted to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she earned her Bachelor’s degree. She then went on to the University of Hawaii, earning her Ph.D. in physics and astronomy there in 1988.
Says Heidi: “I was very fortunate to be in graduate school in Hawaii at the time that they were building these fabulous new telescopes.” After a post-doctoral position at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., she returned to MIT, where she spent nearly nine years as a Principal Research Scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. When the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet crashed into Jupiter, she was the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s public face, explaining the science to television audiences worldwide.
Heidi is the recipient of numerous honors and awards for her achievements as a scientist, science communicator and outreach professional, including: receiving the Carl Sagan Medal (given to scientists whose communications have greatly enhanced the general public’s understanding of planetary science); named as one of Discover Magazine’s 50 most important women in science in 2003, and receiving the Harold C. Urey Prize of the American Astronomical Society.
Her book, “Beyond Jupiter: The Story of Planetary Astronomer Heidi Hammel” is available on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0309095522/ref=oh_details_o07_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
Click here for more information on her website.