Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dr. Britney Schmidt (Conversations at the DPS, profile 4)

Dr. Britney Schmidt poses in front of a combination of rocky and icy material, sadly not at Death Valley.

Britney Schmidt is a rising star of planetary science, as many of us have known for a while now. I first encountered her in Bob Brown's lab at LPL where she worked as an undergraduate. At the time, she was performing lab experiments on isotopic systems in sublimating ices, and cutting her space mission baby teeth on Cassini. I also had the opportunity to participate in a JPL Team-X exercise (aka Planetary Science Summer School) with her in 2005. While we butted heads a bit on that project, we gained a mutual respect for one another (or so I'd like to think) and our group put out a solid proposal for an Europan Orbiter.

Britney would later follow-up on what is perhaps the most critical part for such a spacecraft, an ice-penetrating radar, which is something she looks into in her current position as a postdoc at University of Texas at Austin. In her spare time she is also the director of the Education and Public Outreach effort for the Dawn Mission. Dawn will be the first robotic spacecraft to enter into the gravitational well of a body as an orbiter, break orbit and go on to another body, in this case two of the largest main-belt asteroids Vesta and Ceres.

This expertise with asteroids is something that Britney picked up during her doctoral work at the University of California, Los Angeles. Like me, she is a bit of a jack of all trades with experience running lab experiments, doing theory and observing other planets in their natural environments. In particular, she has used the Hubble Space Telescope to look at asteroids, revealing that there are examples which bear the spectral signs of water ice on their surfaces. I find it facinating that the more we look at comets, the more they look like asteroids (the flyby of comet Hartley-2 showed a very "asteroidal-like" body) and similarly, the more we look at asteroids, the more some of these look like comets. Britney's work was published in Science last year and won her acclaim. At the time of her interview, I hadn't seen her in person for over five years and it was good to catch up.

Britney's interview runs tonight (Monday) at 8:00 PM EST over on's "Live at York U" program. Unlike for the previous interviews, I am off tonight - but not to worry, Jesse and Paul will keep you entertained with the latest news from the Observatory and commentary on what Britney has to say, so feel free to pop by and ask questions in the OPV chat room!

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