EPEC Profiles – Foivos Karakostas

EPEC Profiles – Foivos Karakostas

In this series from the EPEC Communication Working Group, we meet members of the Europlanet Early Career (EPEC) community and find out more about their experiences and aspirations.

Foivos Karakostas is a PostDoctoral Associate at the University of Maryland. His field is planetary seismology and he works for the NASA InSight mission.

I am a geophysicist, more precisely a planetary seismologist, and one of the luckiest inhabitants of Earth, as in 2012 I started my involvement in Planetary Seismology, when Philippe Lognonné offered me an internship related to the InSight mission. Months later, after a decades-long wait, a new seismometer was selected to be deployed on the ground of another planet. The renaissance of Planetary Seismology with InSight, after the Apollo and Viking era, is the best thing that could happen to the new generation of seismologists interested in other worlds.

Like many other kids, I grew up being fascinated about planets and I wanted to study them. My interest was extended to the large scales of the universe or the human exploration of the outer space, but what was always more fascinating for me were these other worlds, different than ours, with exotic landscapes and possibly different life! Unlike many childhood dreams, this one came true, and no matter the challenges that any early career scientist encounters these days, doing this job is a motivation to tackle them all.

Since 2012, I have been working exclusively on topics related to the seismic investigation of other planets and planetary bodies. If I could make a metaphor, my research interests are following the way we investigate the planets, starting from their exterior, the visible part, and going deeper, where the secrets about the planetary formation and evolution are hidden but ready to be revealed. In my PhD studies I developed methodologies for using meteor associated events, airbursts or impacts, as seismic sources, generating surface waves on extraterrestrial environments. Therefore, it was a work in the atmosphere and shallow subsurface. Now, I extend my investigation to the structure of the Martian lithosphere, more precisely through the study of the attenuation of seismic waves, recorded by InSight.

Working for a space mission is tremendously beneficial for a young scientist, as it is a highly collaborative environment, with opportunities to be involved in many different projects and the chance to interact with some of the experts of the field. It is something that I would like to see happening across the broader scientific community. This is why I am keen to contribute to the activities of the Europlanet Society.

I often like to quote Carl Sagan: “Of all the fields of mathematics, technology, and science, the one with the greatest international cooperation […] is the field called “Earth and space sciences.” Studying this world and others, by its very nature, tends to be non-local, non-nationalist, non-chauvinist.” My understanding is that the incarnation of this message are the organizations of international communication and cooperation and we need to support them, through active participation. I consider that the scientific culture and communication is the ground where we perform our work, prepared by others, patiently and tirelessly. We should preserve this tradition for the good of science, the best thing that happened to humanity and we decided to dedicate our lives to it.

I recently joined the Communications Working Group of the EuroPlanet Early Career (EPEC) network. My goal is to use the experience from extracurricular activities for the needs of the network. Until today I have written dozens of popularized articles on new advances on planetary exploration and I am podcasting, with the aim of conveying the core concepts of recently published scientific papers in plain language. This outreach activity is highly beneficial, as it allows us to better understand the contribution of our work to the society, while developing skills of inter-scientific communication.

Foivos Karakostas

More information about Foivos Karakostas:

Contact: foivos@foivos.eu

Foivos Karakostas. Credit: Foivos Karakostas
Foivos Karakostas. Credit: Foivos Karakostas

If you are an Early Career member of the Europlanet Society and would like to be featured in an EPEC Profile, find out more about how to submit your profile.

See all the EPEC Profiles.

Inspiring Stories – using science fiction to teach astrobiology

Inspiring Stories – using science fiction to teach astrobiology

Julie Nováková

In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Julie Nováková from the Charles University in the Czech Republic and the European Astrobiology Institute tells us how she edited an anthology of science fiction stories to help astrobiology outreach and education.

When was the last time you felt the unmistakable ‘sense of wonder’? The familiar awe, surprise and joy at – what? A beautiful sight to behold? A story? A discovery? A piece of data? For scientists, data itself or its collection can evoke a powerful sense of wonder (and sometimes frustration, boredom, puzzlement – we probably all know it), but for nearly anyone outside of science, the journey and/or the result has to be communicated to inspire wonder and facilitate understanding, and hopefully further interest.

Science fiction is a genre of literature built on the sense of wonder. In the 19th century, people held their breath devouring the latest Verne or Wells, widened their eyes at the modern-age horror described by Shelley, and imagined the key ‘what if’ at the heart of SF – what if we could really create new life, travel to the Moon, encounter visitors from Mars… Nowadays, SF is also very popular and increasingly familiar to most of us, at least indirectly as ‘common knowledge’. The mix of familiar tropes, wonder-inspiring new ideas and in the ideal (if not the most frequent) case relying on science makes SF a great medium for communicating science. All of the above points are enormous advantages of using SF as means of science outreach and/or education. There are potential pitfalls as well, of course – with this approach, it needs to be outlined clearly what is science and what is speculation within a story, without getting too carried away.

I’ve been writing, editing and translating science fiction for more than a decade, publishing in major magazines such as Asimov’sAnalog or Clarkesworld and having published seven novels in my native Czech. And for a decade now (how the time flies!), I’ve been studying biology. For approximately the same time, I’ve been writing popular science articles, doing workshops at schools, helping out at science-themed summer camps and lecturing at festivals, conventions and elsewhere. Astrobiology, together with astronomy and planetary science, has always been an interest of mine, and I was happy to join the European Astrobiology Institute (EAI) at the time of its founding in mid-2019. Then it was only logical to take the next step and merge my backgrounds… 

As my first major project as the leader of the team ‘Science Fiction as A Tool of Astrobiology Outreach and Education’ at the EAI, I decided to prepare a freely available book of science fiction stories with interesting astrobiology themes, each accompanied by a popular science essay on the topic and a few tips for using the text in classroom, making the book useful for any individual reader as well as high school or university teachers who like to experiment with unusual approaches. It also enabled us to clearly distinguish between SF and current scientific understanding, while also providing the readers with the option to read just the nonfiction texts, just the stories, or both.

The anthology, titled Strangest of All, was released in May 2020 under the free Creative Commons license in several e-book formats, so that it was accessible to as many people as possible. It contains seven science fiction stories by six renowned authors and a bonus story by myself (whom I cannot possibly call renowned next to the rest of the names). The stories are reprints (meaning previously published), but many of them are impossible to access elsewhere, which would be a shame, because they are all amazing. Together, they showcase the topics of life in a subsurface ocean, life under extremely high pressure, potential for life in the Kuiper Belt, Dyson spheres, the Fermi Paradox, SETI and planetary protection. Each is introduced more in-depth in the nonfiction pieces I personally wrote for the book.

Publishing Strangest of All wasn’t the end of it. It needed to be promoted so that it could reach its audience and actually inspire as many people as possible. The news was shared by Europlanet, Tor.com, Centauri Dreams and elsewhere, including sources in different languages such as Spanish, Portuguese or Czech, thanks to translations of the press release by members of the institute, especially the SF outreach team. Furthermore, I conducted interviews about SF and science with three of the authors so far (Peter WattsGregory BenfordG. David Nordley), with three more coming up later (Geoffrey Landis, Tobias S. Buckell, D.A. Xiaolin Spires). We also used several stories from the anthology for tasks and discussions within the Astrobiology Seminar at the Charles University.

Nor is this the end. The team ‘Science Fiction as A Tool of Astrobiology Outreach and Education’ has a lot of work ahead. Apart from the ‘usual stuff’ such as convention talks, participating in exhibitions or preparing more interviews with scientists and SF authors, we’re hoping to publish a print anthology of original SF stories – written exclusively for the book in cooperation with EAI scientists – also accompanied by nonfiction pieces, covering more astrobiological topics in an exciting and innovative way. We have a long journey ahead: securing funding, talking to publishers and authors, facilitating effective author-scientist collaboration, editing… but I’m optimistic. Having edited three anthologies so far, one of them in print, I know it can be done, and I hope the result will be as amazing as we imagine now.

Luckily, we’re not alone in our efforts. SF has been used in outreach for over a century to some extent, and for instance organizers of the recent Exoplanet Demographics online conference edited a short SF e-zine for each of the days of the event, with contributions tied to the scientific topics presented that day. That is awesome – and so we move from reading the latest Verne in the age when electricity was still a miracle of modern technology to an era where science and technology surround us everywhere and are more accessible than ever before, but also have to compete for attention with many distractions and agendas. SF can hopefully help bridge the gap between entertainment and science – and show that science itself is often much more exciting than fiction, with fiction nevertheless helping us imagine what science cannot yet.

So switch on your flashlight or your e-reader, nestle in the bed covers, dive into fantastic stories of life in the universe and dream on… perhaps so much that one day, it will be you being the principal investigator of a mission not just inspired by visions of exotic life, but also aiming to elucidate the equally fantastic history of the solar system and life here on Earth.

Nováková, J. (ed.), 2020. Strangest Of All: Anthology Of Astrobiological Science Fiction. 1st ed. European Astrobiology Institute. Accessible at https://www.julienovakova.com/strangest-of-all/ and https://europeanastrobiology.eu/ 

Other books by author: https://www.julienovakova.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/book-covers-jn_2020.jpg 

Do you like this story and want more? Browse our archive of EPEC Inspiring Stories and get inspired!

EPEC Profiles – Rutu Parekh

EPEC Profiles – Rutu Parekh

In this series from the EPEC Communication Working Group, we meet members of the Europlanet Early Career (EPEC) community and find out more about their experiences and aspirations.

Rutu Parekh is pursuing a PhD at the Freie Universität Berlin and German Space Center on understanding ‘The influence of volatiles on the asteroid surface: Vesta and Ceres’.

My journey as a planetary researcher has been quite a roller coaster ride so far. However, each stepping stone has helped me to grow in my professional career. Currently, I am pursuing my phd at Freie Universität Berlin and German Space Center (DLR) on understanding ‘ The influence of volatile on the asteroid surface: Vesta and Ceres’.

My study region is focused on to analyse the icy planetary bodies. Various morphological features are associated with volatile outgassing, which has shaped the surface of asteroids. These features help us to understand the evolution of Vesta and Ceres. For this study I use data from the Dawn mission. Further, I also worked on the fractal analysis of boulders identified on the rubble-pile Ryugu asteroid. For this, I used the data from the Hayabusa2 mission which was a collaboration between JAXA and DLR.

Other than being full time researcher, I am also volunteering as tbe Secretary of the Europlanet Diversity Committee and Chair of the EPEC Diversity Working Group. Last, year we launched a series entitled ‘Motivational Journeys‘ under the EPEC Diversity Working Group. This series is a collection of interviews where we discuss the professional journey of experienced scientists in the field of planetary science and provide motivation to early career researchers from diverse environments and cultures.

Additionally, due to my passion towards art and science, I also sketch science in my free time. Being a full time researcher and a constant supporter of creativity, I strongly believe that communicating science is equally important as research and when done in an effective way, it could inspire next generation to take STEM as full time career.

EPEC has provided me with a supportive platform to network and communicate with fellow early careers. It has also served as tremendous source of support and motivation at various stages of my career so far.

Rutu Parekh

More information about Rutu Parekh:

Contact: rutu.parekh@dlr.de

Rutu Parekh. Image credit: Indhu Varatharajan

If you are an Early Career member of the Europlanet Society and would like to be featured in an EPEC Profile, find out more about how to submit your profile.

See all the EPEC Profiles.

Inspiring Stories – Unlocking the Secrets of Enceladus with a homemade video

Inspiring Stories – Unlocking the Secrets of Enceladus with a homemade video

In this EPEC Inspiring Story, Grace Richards, a doctoral student at The Open University (UK), describes how she developed a winning video for the #PlanetaryScience4All video competition.

This year, EPSC-EPEC launched the #PlanetaryScience4All video competition, where PhD students and early career researchers involved in planetary science were given the opportunity to showcase their research through a 4 minute video. Although I have very little experience making videos and no camera equipment, I decided to enter. I am a first-year PhD student at The Open University, studying icy moon surfaces, with a focus on Enceladus. I will be working on developing a system which can analyse surface composition and determine the effects of space weathering processes, such as micrometeoroid impacts, on icy surfaces. 

Having just bought some watercolours to keep me occupied during the lockdown in the UK, I decided to take inspiration from stop-motion videos made by Stacy Phillips (her videos use Lego figures to explain the geology of mountains – watch here!). I wanted to make something which was accessible to non-scientists and fun to watch, while maintaining a high level of science.

My resources were fairly limited because I’d just moved to a new flat. After watching some YouTube tutorials, I downloaded the Stop Motion Studio app for iPhone, and used voice notes to record the audio. The only issue with recording the audio in this way was getting it recorded in between noise from my family/dogs/neighbours. Luckily, I have a lot of experience editing audio files from taking part in dance competitions!

Making a winning entry for the EPEC-EPSC Video Contest. Credit: Grace Richards
Making a winning entry for the EPEC-EPSC Video Contest. Credit: Grace Richards

After making a storyboard of the video, I started matching up the audio with how many frames were necessary for each section of the video. I used 5 frames a second, so had to take 1,200 photos to meet the 4-minute mark. This gives the video a very “stop-motion” effect. Although it may have looked smoother and more professional to use more frames, I thought that 1,200 photos was my limit (and my phone’s storage limit). The Stop Motion Studio app is extremely easy to use, especially for someone like me who isn’t very good at taking photos and there are some really great tutorials online for how to use it.

The longest part of the process was the painting. Using watercolours can be a fairly quick process, as you use thin washes to build up the colour, but care is needed to ensure the paper doesn’t wear through. I’d work on multiple pictures at a time, but the whole process took me a few full days of painting. I also enlisted my sister and her friend to help me cut out the little figures of spacecraft and text, so that was a lot less painful than I initially thought it would be.

I filmed the video by balancing my phone on a shelf above my paintings and surrounded the whole (very technical) set up with lamps. The only issues here were trying not to move my phone, some lighting problems while the Sun was setting, and trying not to move the paintings too much. I divided the filming into blocks so I could take a few breaks, then merged the audio and video files together using iMovie. My final video was called “Unlocking the Secrets of Enceladus” and can be seen at the bottom of this post.

I would like to give a big shout out to all the other contestants who submitted their videos, illustrating the fantastic science that is being conducted throughout out the EPEC community. The other films in the competition ranged from a detective story about the geomorphology of the Martian surface, insights into planetesimal formation using comets, and planetary mapping of the moon and Mercury.

Do you like this story and want more? Browse our archive of EPEC Inspiring Stories and get inspired!

EPEC Profiles – Indhu Varatharajan

EPEC Profiles – Indhu Varatharajan

In this series from the EPEC Communication Working Group, we meet members of the Europlanet Early Career (EPEC) community and find out more about their experiences and aspirations.

Indhu Varatharajan is a final-year PhD student at Planetary Spectroscopy Laboratory (PSL) group at Department of Planetary Laboratories, Institute of Planetary Research, German Aerospace Center (DLR), Berlin.

Being a girl child from a village in southern India with a dream to pursue planetary career since 13 year old and with no adequate financial background, its been one hell of a ride until here. I did not do it alone and I had help throughout my journey — and everyday I try my best to be someone’s help in their journey of a planetary career.

I strongly believe that international collaboration in very important when it comes to planetary science. This is my motivation to become the council member and Chair of Europlanet Early Career (EPEC) Network. I am passionate about volunteering for leader/professional posts as its my best chance to promote planetary and astronomy science to a wider community and see the community I envision it to be.

I am currently a final-year PhD student at the Planetary Spectroscopy Laboratory (PSL) group at the Department of Planetary Laboratories, Institute of Planetary Research, German Aerospace Center (DLR), Berlin and will be graduating by end of 2020. My PhD is focused on ‘Evaluating new spectral analysis techniques to study the hot surface of Mercury with MERTIS on ESA/JAXA BepiColombo mission’ and my advisor is Dr Jörn Helbert, Co-PI of MERTIS. I am officially Co-Investigator of MERTIS since 2018.

In the last 8 years, I am have been working in the field of planetary science investigating various planetary exploration methods such as laboratory spectroscopy from ultraviolet to far-infrared spectroscopy of planetary analogues, laboratory emissivity studies of hot planetary analogues under simulated planetary surface conditions, nanoscale spectroscopy of synthetic planetary analogue materials with synchrotron facilities, telescope observations, machine learning approaches to data analysis of orbital hyperspectral datasets, and planetary field analogue studies targeting in-situ planetary exploration. Over these years, I have had the opportunities to study and explore various aspects of planetary targets include the Moon, Mars, Mercury, near earth asteroids, main belt asteroids, Earth and meteorites.

I am personally motivated towards developing cross disciplinary AI-ML techniques for planetary surface exploration through an integrated spectroscopy approach. I am passionate about designing and building planetary science solutions that transform hierarchical datasets at scale and generate valuable insights to planetary surface resources and drive crucial exploration decisions.

I personally believe that taking responsibilities at a young age allows us to learn the professional elements in a more stress-free environment and EPEC allows me exactly that!!

At EPEC we are a team who are not only passionate about the research we do but also equally passionate in engraining varieties of soft skills including leadership and management qualities that benefit our early career fellows in becoming young professionals. It’s a rewarding and unique experience to work with early-career researchers across Europe and the international community across various working groups under common goals.

Indhu Varatharajan

More information about Indhu Varatharajan:

Contact: indhu.varatharajan@dlr.de

The compilation of all publications and abstracts are linked at this NASA ADS link: http://tiny.cc/indhu_varatharajan

Credit: Indhu Varatharajan

Academics and others: BE in Geoinformatics (Chennai, India), MSc in Planetary Science (London, UK), (ongoing) PhD in Planetary Spectroscopy and MERTIS/BEPICOLOMBO Data Science (Berlin, Germany), Co-Investigator of MERTIS payload onboard ESA-JAXA BepiColombo mission (2018-present), Chair of Europlanet Early Career (EPEC) Committee (2017-present), RAS Councillor (2019-2020), Founder and President of Astronomy and Planetary Science Club of CEG (2009-2012).

Indhu Varatharajan’s special interests: AI-driven integrated planetary spectroscopy and planetary surface science and exploration, Moon-Mercury science, space weathering, volatiles, volcanism, impact cratering, STEM outreach.

If you are an Early Career member of the Europlanet Society and would like to be featured in an EPEC Profile, find out more about how to submit your profile.

See all the EPEC Profiles.

Inspiring Stories – Make the wonders of space accessible to all

Inspiring Stories – Make the wonders of space accessible to all

In this EPEC Inspiring Story, Ines Belgacem and the Sens’Astro team describe how they are creating resources to share the wonders of the Universe with those with disabilities through a multisensory experience.

Making your work accessible to the general public is a crucial part of a scientist’s mission. This is the fundamental belief that brought the eight of us together to create Sens’Astro: experiencing space through the five senses. 

Passionate about space science and astrophysics, we love sharing that passion with the public. However, in our past experiences, we have been struck by how part of the population has limited access to the wonders of space that are so much based on what we see. That is how in October 2019, through the original idea of Marina Gruet, we came together to create Sens’Astro. Our mission is to share innovative content to discover the Universe through our five senses – sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch – making it accessible to people with sensory disabilities. 

Meet the team!

Sens'Astro team. Credit: Sens'Astro

During our first year, we have developed several activities that we have had the chance to test at a series of public events with audiences of all ages and backgrounds. Do you know what the Milky Way tastes like? What does the Moon smell like? What does Mars’s wind sound like? These are the sort of things we are proposing to be discovered at our events!

We are grateful for the support we have already received from organisations like the Société Française d’Astronomie et d’Astrophysique (SF2A), la Cité de l’Espace (Toulouse, France) and Délires d’Encre. Thanks to them, we were able to develop and do live tests of the activities we want to share.

Discover the sounds of the Universe, the Sun, Jupiter, Mars and can you name the songs on Voyager's Golden Record? Scientilivre Festival at Diagora, Labège, France.
Discover the sounds of the Universe, the Sun, Jupiter, Mars and can you name the songs on Voyager’s Golden Record? Scientilivre Festival at Diagora, Labège, France.

We are now looking to expand and invest in more durable equipment for the future. We are currently reflecting on how to make our activities safe in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are really looking forward to going back out there to meet the public and keep sharing our passion with everyone!

“Scent bingo” – Sulfur, ammonia, barbecue… would you be able to identify what these scents belong to? From Scientilivre Festival at Diagora, Labège, France.
“Scent bingo” – Sulphur, ammonia, barbecue… would you be able to identify what these scents belong to? From Scientilivre Festival at Diagora, Labège, France.

One of the most rewarding aspects of this first year has been getting feedback from our different events. So much of space exploration is told through breath-taking images and it is not easy to find ways to share it through other senses. People who were already a bit of a space enthusiast found our activities to be a clever take on what they were already familiar with, and they even discovered a new way to look at the Universe. People with sensory disabilities appreciated that we tailored our content for them and had some crucial remarks to help us improve, e.g. the spacing in our Braille impressions was sometimes insufficient for them to read. Kids were incredibly happy to be able to touch things like meteorites and 3D-printed planetary surfaces or to bake Milky Way and Jupiter cookies. Involving them in that way makes it so much easier to hold their attention and help them remember what they learnt.

All in all, finding ways to discover space through all five senses has been challenging – in a good way! It has allowed us to reach a wide range of audiences though innovative and accessible content. And you can do that too! You can visit our social network pages to see more examples or interact with us. You can even participate in our first-year anniversary event and share with our community the image, the scent, the feel, the sound and taste of this last year in space. 

Website: www.sensastro.fr

Twitter, Instagram, Facebook: @SensAstro31

Contact: sensastro@gmail.com

Do you like this story and want more? Browse our archive of EPEC Inspiring Stories and get inspired!

EPEC-EPSC Video Contest – Announcing the Shortlist

EPEC-EPSC Video Contest – Announcing the Shortlist

We are excited to announce the shortlist for the #PlanetaryScience4All EPEC -EPSC video contest.

We have four fantastic finalists who have risen to the challenge of describing their research in just 4 minutes. The judges are deliberating and the winners will be announced on Friday 2 October in Session CE13 – Outstanding Student Poster Award and EPEC-EPSC video contest announcements

And the winner is….

Grace Richards

Congratulations to Grace and to all the finalists:

Doro Bischoff

Anthony Guimpier

Gloria Tognon

Back to EPSC2020 Outreach

EPEC Profiles – Solmaz Adeli

EPEC Profiles – Solmaz Adeli

In this series from the EPEC Communication Working Group, we meet members of the Europlanet Early Career (EPEC) community and find out more about their experiences and aspirations.

Solmaz Adeli is a planetary geologist, working as a Postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Planetary Research of the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

Studying the planets has always been a dream to me, since I was little, and I couldn’t be happier for being in this research topic in this particular period of time, where there are missions to various planets, asteroids, icy moons, even far Kuiper belt objects!

Researching the past climate and surface conditions of the Red Planet is my expertise. I am actively involved in the HRSC camera science team on board ESA’s Mars Express mission, and the PanCam camera on board the future ESA and Roscosmos rover, Rosalind Franklin, which is a part of the ExoMars mission.

I obtained my doctoral degree in 2016 from the Freie Universität Berlin and German Space Center (DLR) on the topic of ‘History of liquid water on Mars’. My thesis was about reconstructing the geological history of a region on the southern hemisphere of Mars, where the presence of one of the largest paleolakes on Mars has been hypothesized (Eridania lake). During my first postdoc, I studied the recent glaciation phases in the midlatitude regions of Mars.

Currently I am supporting the Rosalind Franklin rover science team in their landing site high resolution mapping effort, by leading a part of the mapping exercise. In addition, I am also involved in preparing samples to be analyzed by the rover’s scientific payload. This allowed me to visit the exobiology research team at CBM/CNRS laboratories in Orleans, France last year, for a couple of months. For this visit, I won a travel grant from the Geo.X network in Berlin and Brandenburg.

In addition to the research activities, I also teach planetary science-related topics at the Freie Universität Berlin and Universität Potsdam, and occasionally supervise bachelor and master thesis, as well as co-supervising doctoral studies. Interacting with interested and motivated students is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.

Since 2019, I am chairing the EPEC EPSC working group, along with Maike Neuland. This has been an amazing experience of creativity, networking, organizing, planning, interacting with other working groups and conference organizers, and working with great members of the this working group. I have learnt so much about how an event such as EPSC is being managed and how early careers can influence the larger community.

Solmaz Adeli

More information about Solmaz Adeli:

Contact: Solmaz.Adeli@dlr.de

Solmaz Adeli
Credit: Solmaz Adeli

If you are an Early Career member of the Europlanet Society and would like to be featured in an EPEC Profile, find out more about how to submit your profile.

See all the EPEC Profiles.

Voyage 2050 Viewpoint: Dr Patricio Becerra

Voyage 2050 Viewpoint: Dr Patricio Becerra

In this series from the EPEC Future Research Working Group, Eleni Maria Ravanis talked with three early career planetary science researchers who are lead authors on Voyage 2050 white papers to find out more about how they got involved and what they think planetary science will look like in 2050. 

Dr Patricio Becerra

Dr Patricio Becerra is a post-doc at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Originally from Peru, he completed his PhD in the US at the University of Arizona in 2016, then moved to Bern in 2017. He is the co-lead on the white paper entitled “Mars and the Science Programme: The case for Mars Polar Science”. 

What is the basic idea of your white paper?

Our white paper seeks to promote the continued exploration of Mars, with a particular focus on the polar regions and the icy deposits on the planet’s surface, and how they relate to climate. Mars’ climate, like that of Earth, has changed over time due to oscillations in its orbital parameters, which affect the solar flux on the surface. These oscillations are more extreme on Mars than on Earth, and Mars has no other factors heavily affecting its climate (such as oceans, biology and anthropogenic emissions), resulting in a direct relationship between its geologic deposits and its orbital climate forcing. This is especially evident in the stratified deposits of ice at the poles, and in the icy deposits in the mid latitudes. Therefore, the Martian icy climate record is an ideal laboratory to study the basic causes of planetary climate change. In addition, Martian ice deposits are the most extensive in the inner solar system, after Earth’s, and the possibility of signs of extant or extinct life being present in this ice is considerable. Finally, easily accessible surface ice is indispensable for in-situ resource utilisation by future crewed exploration missions. For all these reasons, continued exploration of Mars benefits not just planetary science, but climatology, geology, astrobiology, and the future of astronautics. The ideas, goals, and mission proposals presented in the white paper were the result of a Keck Institute for Space Science (KISS) Workshop held in 2017 and 2018.

Coming from Peru, I hope that in the future there will be more contributions from Southern Hemisphere countries, and that research in planetary science becomes truly diversified.

Dr Patricio Becerra

How did you become involved in the white paper?

I specialise in remote sensing of the polar regions of Mars. As a postdoc in Switzerland, I became aware of the white paper call through my boss (Prof. Nicolas Thomas) and the Voyage 2050 website. At the 9th International Conference on Mars, in Pasadena, California, a session was set aside to discuss white papers for NASA’s decadal survey, and for ESA’s Voyage 2050. At this session, Prof. Thomas (who is the PI of ExoMars TGO’s CaSSIS camera) expressed his interest in writing a white paper promoting Mars exploration for the next decades. As we had both participated in the KISS Workshop in 2017 and 2018, I asked him to participate and we decided to focus the paper on Mars Polar Science, adding another collaborator from Canada.

Talk to the authors. Email them, show your enthusiasm and be proactive about becoming involved.

Dr Patricio Becerra

What advice do you have for early career researchers who want to get involved in the follow-up of the white papers presented at this workshop?

Talk to the authors. Email them, show your enthusiasm and be proactive about becoming involved. Co-signers are always welcome, and generally, the more interest an author has on their topic, the better it will be for that topic/mission/proposal down the line.

What do you think planetary science will look like in 2050?

It’s hard to say, given numerous political instabilities around the world at the present time. However, I think that at the very least, humans will be back on the Moon before then. Also, I think we will probably have missions to the Ice Giants that are bound to result in numerous discoveries and perhaps completely revolutionise knowledge in planetary science. The upcoming missions to Europa, the Jupiter system, and Titan, will surely generate as much, if not more knowledge as the seminal missions that came before them, namely Galileo and Cassini. Hopefully, this will continue to spark public interest, which will enable more job opportunities for young aspiring planetary scientists.
In particular, I hope that planetary science becomes truly global. Currently, the majority of advanced research in planetary science is done primarily in the US and Europe, followed closely by Japan. China and India are beginning to become players in the game, and hopefully this will continue and improve. Coming from Peru, I hope that in the future there will be more contributions from Southern Hemisphere countries, and that research in planetary science (and also other fields) becomes truly diversified.

It would also be great to see more scientists – who in their majority are driven by a passion for the field – in leading positions within companies, or even starting their own space exploration companies that collaborate with agencies, provide payload, staff, and even propose their own mission concepts.

Dr Patricio Becerra

Historically, scientists have worked solely with space agencies to perform experiments in space and on planets. Do you think that the growth of private companies bringing payloads in space, e.g., to or around the Moon, is serious and mature enough for scientists to start collaborating with them?

Yes, I do. The disadvantage of private enterprises in research is that most of the time, profit is the most important objective, which tends to bias which type of research gets done, and limits who has access to the results of that research. However, I think that the way forward is collaborations between space agencies and private companies, such as those between NASA and Boeing, historically with Lockheed-Martin, and most recently with Space-X. These types of collaborations reduce the cost of launches and payload construction, while ensuring that the community goals for research are kept at the forefront. It would also be great to see more scientists – who in their majority are driven by a passion for the field – in leading positions within companies, or even starting their own space exploration companies that collaborate with agencies, provide payload, staff, and even propose their own mission concepts.

More about Voyage 2050 Viewpoints.

New space companies and planetary science

New space companies and planetary science

This article has been contributed by Hans Huybrighs and Ottaviano Ruesch of the EPEC Future Research Working Group.

In the news, we often hear about New Space companies and their goals to ‘revolutionise’ the access and use of space. Think, for example, of Blue Origin and their planned Blue Moon lunar lander. These new opportunities to access planetary bodies are not, however, always considered in the planetary science community as serious options.

We wonder: are private space companies overlooked because there is some uncertainty as to whether they will eventually launch? Is it worth considering such opportunities when we think of the future of planetary science?

Here at the EPEC Future Research Working Group, we want to explore whether New Space companies will affect how we do research in the future. To find out more, we spoke with Dr Thorben Könemann, Deputy Scientific Director of the ZARM Drop Tower Operation and Service Company at the Center of Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM) in Bremen, and Dr Erika Wagner, payload sales director at Blue Origin in Kent, Washington.

‘Complementary’ is the keyword that Dr Könemann uses to describe the opportunities provided by New Space companies. His engineering team at ZARM integrates and supports microgravity experiments that have also flown onboard Blue Origin’s reusable launch vehicle, New Shepard, and Dr Könemann has been involved in those experiments from the beginning. 

‘Blue Origin provides complementary access to space with a different set of boundary conditions for the payload than was previously available,’ Dr Könemann says. ‘Examples of such boundary conditions are: payload mass, duration and quality of microgravity, performance of the vehicle, and finally pricing. The availability of a new option increases the chance of finding a launcher that meets the requirement of an experiment and thus the chance to obtain an opportunity to fly.’

Although those experiments are generally more focused on microgravity research and less on planetary science, ZARM’s experience of becoming involved with Blue Origin still gives us lessons that can be applied to planetary science.

Through talking to Dr Könemann, it is clear that today, we are not necessarily witnessing a radical change in how space missions are developed, but rather an increase in the ways that space can be reached and studied. Flights provided by Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard rocket are an example of such new methods.

Dr Könemann states, ‘ZARM reached out early to potential new launch providers a decade ago. We not only contacted Blue Origin but also spoke to other upcoming companies, some of which don’t exist anymore.’

Therefore, even though the flight opportunities from new space companies for planetary science beyond Earth do not exist at present, it does make sense to establish relations with these companies early, so as not to miss out on these new opportunities later down the line.

Blue Origin's Blue Moon lunar lander. Credit: Blue Origin.
The Blue Moon lunar lander. Credit: Blue Origin.

Looking at the future and at rockets that can reach deep space, Dr Wagner says,  ‘Blue Origin will be able to bring a considerable mass and volume of payload onto the surface of the Moon with the Blue Moon lunar lander. This would offer the opportunity to build heavier and more voluminous instruments.’

This is somewhat contrary to the trend of miniaturisation. It is the view of the EPEC Future Research WG that being aware of these opportunities from now will enable the community to develop instrumentation that makes optimal use of the new diverse platforms when they become available (and planning space missions is a long process – check out our series on the ESA Voyage 2050 white papers).

Dr Wagner also explains that of the 100 experiments to have flown on New Shepard, only 3 were funded by European agencies. Thus, it seems that there is a slower uptake on commercial opportunities in Europe when compared with the USA.

Dr Wagner suggests, “If early career researchers want to see an increase in this uptake, they could enable this change by advocating for the potential use of these new opportunities.”

For example, early career researchers can include these possibilities in white papers for government surveys equivalent to the US decadal survey, or through bodies such as the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC).

We conclude that new space companies could provide further opportunities in the future to reach our planetary destinations. To make the most of these opportunities, however, it helps to establish connections early, and early career researchers can encourage a move in this direction by advocating for links between planetary science and future launches by private space companies.

What are your thoughts about new space and planetary science? Let us know:  epec.futureresearch@gmail.com

Find out more about the EPEC Future Research WG.

Banner image credit: Blue Origin.

Europlanet launches Early Careers Training and Education Portal and Mentoring Services

Europlanet launches Early Careers Training and Education Portal and Mentoring Services

Europlanet has launched a suite of new services to support early career professionals in the planetary community:

Early Careers Training and Education Portal

The Early Careers Training and Education Portal provides information on PhD positions, job opportunities, summer schools, and meetings relevant to early career professionals working in planetary science and related fields. 

Please send any information on PhD positions, job opportunities, summer schools, and meetings relevant to early career professionals working in planetary science and related fields to mentors@europlanet-society.org.

Early Career Training and Education Portal


Europlanet Mentorship Platform

The Europlanet Mentorship Platform aims to help early career scientists to develop expertise, ask questions and discuss career plans with the support of more established members of the planetary community.

We are actively recruiting now! It is important for us to understand the need in the community for the Europlanet Mentoring Platform, so we encourage you to sign up now and let us know whether you would be interested in becoming a Mentor or Mentee.

The Europlanet Mentoring Platform will start with a pilot programme from September – December 2020, with a full service launched in January 2021.


Mentoring@EPSC

Mentoring@EPSC aims to provides support for early career scientists in navigating the Europlanet Science Congress (EPSC) 2020 virtual meeting

Although virtual events offer a lot of advantages, one major disadvantage they have is that it is difficult to get to know other people, particularly those in a more advanced stage of their career. Mentoring@EPSC will fill this gap by enabling one-to-one meetings between novice conference attendees and postdocs and experienced researchers.

If this is your first international conference or you are unsure about how to attend such an event virtually, join us as an EPSC Mentee here. If you are an experienced researcher and would be willing to support an early career professional and share some of your tips and knowledge, please join us as an EPSC Mentor here. The registered Mentors and Mentees will be able to meet via online meetings, organized at their own convenience, during the conference weeks.

The deadline to sign-up to the Mentoring@EPSC program is September 4, 2020.

Europlanet Society Congress (EPSC) 2020 Virtual Meeting

The Early Careers Training and Education Portal and Europlanet Mentorship Platform are run by Vilnius University as part of the Europlanet 2024 Research Infrastructure, in collaboration with the Europlanet Society and Europlanet Early Career (EPEC) network.

Mentoring@EPSC is run by the EPEC-EPSC Working Group.

Early Careers Training and Education Portal

EPEC Profiles – Gene Schmidt

EPEC Profiles – Gene Schmidt

In this series from the EPEC Communication Working Group, we meet members of the Europlanet Early Career (EPEC) community and find out more about their experiences and aspirations.

Gene Schmidt has been fortunate to travel throughout the world due to geology.

Credit: Gene Schmidt

My parents were both geologists and because of their various research projects I grew up living in Nevada, Montana, Argentina, and Michigan. Due to this type of upbringing I have had a strong interest in both geology and outer space since I was a child.

I received a bachelor’s degree in Geology from Western Michigan University and entered North Dakota’s 2008 oil boom as a well-site geologist aiding various oil companies in horizontal drilling. I later received a master’s degree in Earth Sciences at Brock University in Ontario, Canada where I began my research on the interior layered deposits of Mars.

I moved to Italy in 2017 to obtain a PhD in planetary geology from the International Research School of Planetary Science and obtained many opportunities to present my research across Europe. I am now a researcher at the University Roma Tre where I am continuing geologic research on Mars and expanding my research to Martian analogs, spectroscopy, and the Precambrian geology of Earth.

EPEC is a great community of young scientists with a friendly and welcoming atmosphere. It is a strong platform for anyone beginning research in various fields of outer space to create a network of like-minded scientists. I met many of my current colleagues and coauthors through EPEC and I enjoy the opportunity to help anyone who is just starting out and searching for some footing early in their career.

Gene Schmidt

More information about Gene Schmidt:

Contact: gene.w.schmidt@gmail.com

Credit: Gene Schmidt

If you are an Early Career member of the Europlanet Society and would like to be featured in an EPEC Profile, find out more about how to submit your profile.

See all the EPEC Profiles.

Inspiring Stories – Explaining Seismology Through Comics

Inspiring Stories – Explaining Seismology Through Comics 

In this EPEC Inspiring Story, Dr. Petr Brož, a researcher and space communicator at the Institute of Geophysics of the Czech Academy of Sciences, describes how he has developed, together with his colleague Dr. Matěj Machek, comics about seismology for teenagers.

Communicating science can be easy when we target those who are already interested and have a desire to learn something new, but this isn’t always the case. There are many groups which don’t consider scientific knowledge a priority – one of which is teenagers, who are at the transition between childhood and adulthood, and overwhelmed by the many new distractions this brings.

Those who teach know that teenagers can be one of the most difficult groups to attract. To get their attention, one needs to engage and entertain them at the same time, but also communicate to them in a familiar way.

My colleague and I had been thinking about how to overcome these difficulties, as we wanted to ignite a love for Earth sciences even within this hard to reach group. Our solution was to prepare comics explaining some basics of seismology – a field of science which is a research focus of our institute.

The idea to use cartoons as a tool for education is not new. Actually, it has been widely used; just remember ESA’s famous Rosetta and Philae ‘Once upon a time…’ adventure to catch the comet. But as far as we were aware, there was not a dedicated comic for teenagers about seismology, or more precisely, about seismic wave propagation through our planet. So the plan was simple: let’s produce one!


Page from
Page from “When the Earth Quakes: The Story of a Seismic Wave.” Credit: Karolina Kučerová and the Institute of Geophysics of the Czech Academy of Sciences”

However, our simple plan had one tiny problem. Neither of us had any experience producing comics or an artistic gift to draw. While there was the prospect that we could learn how to make comics, it was clear to us that we would never learn how to transform our fancy ideas into beautiful drawings. Therefore, from the beginning we knew we would need to ask for some professional help. We needed the services of a graphic artist and a scriptwriter. However, to include professionals in the team caused an additional problem, but luckily for us only a minor one. We needed money to hire them!

We started to search for money. Firstly, we asked our institute, but were rejected. There was no will to spend around €8,000 on such a project. We then went one step higher and asked the Czech Academy of Sciences, but ended up with the same result. This time the reason was that there was no money left for the fiscal year. At this point we started searching for external funding. We wrote emails and spoke with many organisations, but all of them gave us negative responses. They liked the idea, but because we were asking in the middle of the year, it was a bad time to get funding. But we weren’t ready to give up. So we tried another option – asking our friends and followers on social media. Surprisingly, this finally worked and our post reached someone willing to help us.

Personified P-wave: our superhero
Personified P-wave: the superhero of “When the Earth Quakes: The Story of a Seismic Wave.” Credit: Karolina Kučerová and the Institute of Geophysics of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Once the funding was secured, we started to work. First we had to think up a story which would be attractive for readers, while at the same time explaining various processes occurring inside the Earth. It may sound simple, but it was not. How could we take processes occurring deep under our feet which cannot be seen by the naked eye, and turn them into something attractive? This seemed to be the big challenge. During our brainstorming sessions several ideas came out, but it soon became clear that we would need a character to describe these processes to the readers.  Who would this be? The selection was simple, the only one who would actually “feel” these deep buried processes: a seismic wave.  

But a seismic wave is just energy and therefore cannot speak. So we needed the wave to become a person, and that’s how our seismic “superhero” was born. We sharpened this idea together with the scriptwriter Lucie Lukačovičová, and the rest of the story was actually quite simple to write. We came up with the idea of two kids visiting a seismic monitoring station where they would encounter the P-wave, telling them a story about how she was born and ran through the entire planet. Of course, every good story needs a build-up of tension leading to the grand finale, and our comic is no exception. We needed a dramatic ending that would also educate our readers. We came up with one, but I don’t want to spoil the story, so you’ll have to read the comics to find out the ending!

However, writing the storyline was just part of the project, and to be honest it was the easier part. The real challenges were still ahead of us. How to draw the story, the personified seismic waves (yes, waves, the P-wave has a sister, S-wave, and two brothers, the surface waves), and how to visualize these awkward processes hidden from our sight. To draw the strange behaviour of ductile rocks within the mantle or the formation of the magnetic field within the outer liquid core was not easy. These were the challenges to deal with! We spent many hours with our graphic artist Karolína Kučerová, teaching here the basics of our field before we were able to find a solution. We knew that outreach requires some simplifications of real processes, but we still wanted to be as accurate as possible. Were we successful in that? Again, open the comics and judge for yourself on all the details there.

Once we had all the drawings ready it was a time to finish the dialogues. Before making this comic I assumed that dialogs were written before the drawings, but this project showed me otherwise. There was clearly a need to significantly modify the dialog to match the drawings. I found that much of the text could actually be removed as the drawing helped to describe the scene, and this was a great lesson for me. 

So after several months of work, we turned our dream into a real comic printed on shiny paper. This was a relief, but not the end of the story. There were still two important jobs to be done. First was to promote our comic to the public. This is an aspect of science communication which we have a tendency to overlook, but it is one of the most important. Once you finish your project you have to make sure that people know about it. Therefore, we arranged an interview on national TV in which we presented this piece of art, produced a press release, and actively shared information with others who could spread the word. This post is actually part of that effort. Additionally, to support sharing, the comic has been released under the free Creative Commons license.

The printed comics.
The printed comics. Credit: Karolina Kučerová and the Institute of Geophysics of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

But what about the second task? The original comic was written in Czech, a language that is used by only 15 million people. This is a relatively small audience, and our ambition for this work is much greater. We want to offer an education tool which anybody can use, and this brings us to the need to translate our work. We recently finished the English version, which you can download here, and this brings the comics to a much wider readership. However, this is not the end, and as not everybody speaks English our aim is to provide translations in many other languages, as many as our finances will allow. So if you are interested in seeing the comic in your own language, and you would be willing to translate, please let us know!




Do you like this story and want more? Browse our archive of EPEC Inspiring Stories and get inspired!

Voyage 2050 Viewpoint: Dr Charlotte Götz

Voyage 2050 Viewpoint: Dr Charlotte Götz

In this series from the EPEC Future Research Working Group, Eleni Maria Ravanis talked with three early career planetary science researchers who are lead authors on Voyage 2050 white papers to find out more about how they got involved and what they think planetary science will look like in 2050. 

Dr Charlotte Götz
Dr Charlotte Götz.

Dr Charlotte Götz is an ESA Research Fellow working at ESTEC in The Netherlands. Originally from Germany, Charlotte completed her PhD in 2019 at the Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany. She is the lead author of the white paper ‘Cometary Plasma Science‘, where she draws on her experience on the Rosetta Mission.

What is the basic idea of your white paper?

The basic idea is that we need to explore the plasma environment of comets with a multi-point measurement. There are a tonne of open questions even after the success of Rosetta that mostly stem from the fact that we can only measure the plasma at one point. Since the interaction of the cometary ions and electrons with the solar wind is very dynamic, a reliable measurement of the solar wind just in front of the comet is needed. The plasma at a comet presents a unique opportunity to study plasma processes like collisions and waves at different length scales and will help us to better understand plasma physics in general.

Space exploration can be a role model for worldwide cooperation and inspire people to work more closely together to achieve these formidable goals.

Dr Charlotte Götz

How did you become involved in the white paper?

We talked about the Voyage 2050 effort at a meeting of the Rosetta Plasma Consortium, which I have been a member of since the start of my PhD. Everyone agreed that it would be worthwhile to write the white paper (or to have a significant contribution to a white paper on plasma at unmagnetised bodies). But people were hesitant to lead the effort due to heavy workloads within the team. So, me and Herbert Gunell said we would lead the white paper, and in the end we decided to put me on as the lead author and representative.

Do not be too constrained by your field; sometimes it is really worthwhile to stray out of your scientific comfort zone and explore new things.

Dr Charlotte Götz

What advice do you have for early career researchers who want to get involved in the follow-up of the white papers presented at this workshop?

Talk to people! The most important thing is to talk to potential collaborators at conferences and meetings, because that is where the really good ideas and connections come from. Science is a collaborative effort and we should strive to be as communicative as possible. Also do not be too constrained by your field; sometimes it is really worthwhile to stray out of your scientific comfort zone and explore new things.

What do you think planetary science will look like in 2050?

I think planetary science will rely more on small-sat technologies. These make it possible to reduce costs, while still providing great amounts of data to explore. I also hope that international cooperation becomes even deeper and more frequent. Some of the really ambitious and exciting topics that were proposed for Voyage 2050 are only achievable by combining the efforts and budgets of many countries and space agencies. Space exploration can be a role model for worldwide cooperation and inspire people to work more closely together to achieve these formidable goals.

Historically, scientists have worked solely with space agencies to perform experiments in space and on planets. Do you think that the growth of private companies bringing payloads in space, e.g., to or around the Moon, is serious and mature enough for scientists to start collaborating with them?

Private companies offer a new way to explore space and there have been collaborations between scientists and companies already. Science and the data from space exploration missions should and must always be publicly available, which is not yet something that private companies are entirely comfortable with. When we get to this stage, I would be happy to collaborate more.

Talk to people! The most important thing is to talk to potential collaborators at conferences and meetings, because that is where the really good ideas and connections come from.

Dr Charlotte Götz

More about Voyage 2050 Viewpoints.

EPEC Profiles – Erica Luzzi

EPEC Profiles – Erica Luzzi

In this series from the EPEC Communication Working Group, we meet members of the Europlanet Early Career (EPEC) community and find out more about their experiences and aspirations.

Erica Luzzi is currently enrolled as PhD student at Jacobs University Bremen and her research project consists of geological mapping on Mars within the European PLANMAP consortium.

Part of her PhD project was also funded by ESA within the Analog1 experiment. The latter experience brought her on a field mission in Lanzarote (Canary Islands), where, together with ESA astronauts, a variety of experiments were performed to test tele-robotic future exploration of the Moon and Mars, remote sensing through UAVs, and other field analyses that the astronauts will perform in future missions of human exploration.

More recently, Erica took part in a further version of Analog1 in which the ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano was controlling a rover located on Earth from the International Space Station, testing future missions on the Moon, where a rover will be located on the Moon’s surface and the astronaut will drive it, sampling rocks, safely from orbit. In this experiment Erica was in the backroom and was part of the science team that suggested to the astronauts what samples to collect based on what they could see from the camera on board the rover.

Erica Luzzi during a field campaign. Credit: All rights reserved by Erica Luzzi.

Something that she really loves apart from her PhD, is her position as Teaching Assistant for the courses of Structural Geology and Sedimentology. This is her biggest dream: getting to pass the knowledge to younger generations in the same way her professors did with her. Caring, and also stimulating because learning has to be fun, has to be a nourishment for curiosity.

Recently, Erica won the Amelia Earhart Fellowship, a $10 000 award for women pursuing their PhD in Space Sciences, that will allow her to have a budget for field trips studying terrestrial analogues, for buying new equipment and for attending conferences.

In 2021 she will pursue her doctorate and will look for post-doc opportunities. Even though she is dreaming of coming back to her beloved country, Italy, she stays open to all possibilities and is ready to work hard to get a permanent position at a university where she will be able, one day, to teach and keep doing research on the Red Planet.

Last but not least, Erica is currently in charge of organising the next EPEC Annual Week, which was supposed to take place in Padova in June 2020 but, due to the Covid-19, has been postponed to 2021. 

The EPEC Annual Week is a great opportunity for networking (I personally gained a couple of future co-authorships through this event) and also to learn how to deal with common problems at the beginning of the academic career, both psychological and for practical matters.

Erica Luzzi

More information about Erica Luzzi:

Social Media:

Contact: e.luzzi@jacobs-university.de

Credit: All rights reserved by Erica Luzzi.

If you are an Early Career member of the Europlanet Society and would like to be featured in an EPEC Profile, find out more about how to submit your profile.

See all the EPEC Profiles.

Inspiring Stories – Studying Alien Worlds Through ORBYTS

Studying Alien Worlds Through ORBYTS

In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Dr Billy Edwards, Twinkle Project Scientist and Research Associate on the Ariel space mission, describes how he is bringing cutting-edge exoplanet research into UK classrooms.

Last year I became involved in the Original Research by Young Twinkle Students (ORBYTS) programme. This educational scheme aims to allow secondary school pupils to work on new, exciting research linked to the Twinkle Space Mission under the tuition of PhD students and other young scientists (http://www.twinkle-spacemission.co.uk/edutwinkle/). To achieve this, ORBYTS connects science researchers with secondary schools, where, through fortnightly school visits over an academic year, the students are taught undergraduate-level physics. These classes allow the researchers to engage students with the subjects they themselves are studying. The ultimate goal of this project is to give students the opportunity to use this new knowledge to contribute towards publishable research. 

The core idea is that pupils get hands on experience of scientific research and work closely with young scientists. By bringing together schools and researchers, the programme aims to not only improve student aspirations and scientific literacy, but also help to address diversity challenges by dispelling harmful stereotypes, challenging any preconceptions about who can become a scientist and I found the relative informality of the classes to a powerful way of connecting with the students. While projects have been run on a number of topics, mine focused on one of the core science targets for the Twinkle mission: exoplanets.

We currently know of over 4000 planets, which orbit stars other than our Sun. These range from small, cool rocky worlds such as those in the TRAPPIST-1 system to massive, hot gaseous planets such as WASP-76 b where it is thought to rain iron. However, while we have had some tentative insights, much about these alien worlds remains a mystery. Future space-based telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, Twinkle and Ariel will use spectroscopy to study their atmospheres, detecting the molecules present to give us a deep understanding of the planet. 

However, in recent years, a problem has begun to develop. With so many known planets, keeping track of the exact time at which they are going to transit has become harder and harder. In the coming years, this is only going to get more difficult as surveys such TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, will find thousands more exoplanets. The only way to keep the ephemerides of these planets fresh is to frequently re-observe them and this will require an increasing amount of telescope time.

In this project, we used a robotic ground-based telescope network to observe planets which had high uncertainties in their orbital parameters. The students were given free rein to choose the planets they wished to observe and then planned the observations before reducing and analysing the subsequent data. However, given the expected number of planet discoveries, professional telescope networks may not be enough to keep the transit times fresh.

Luckily, help is at hand in the form of citizen astronomers. As many of these planets are around bright stars, even modest telescopes can capture the transit event and in recent years the number of citizen astronomers contributing light curves has increased drastically. As part of this ORBYTS project we also analysed data obtained by a number of citizen astronomers and contributing to the ExoClock initiative (www.exoclock.space). The students approached the project with real enthusiasm, analysing the transits of several planets. This work was recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) with all the students and citizen astronomers as authors. 

For me, this programme was challenging but extremely rewarding. Teaching your first class is always a scary moment, even when it is on a topic you know well. However, the classes soon became the highlight of my week and, as the programme progressed, the increased participation and engagement by the students was hugely gratifying. While they may not all become astrophysicists, it is my hope that this project has inspired them to embark on scientific careers or, at the very least, to make them consider their place in the universe.

Do you like this story and want more? Browse our archive of EPEC Inspiring Stories and get inspired!

Voyage 2050 Viewpoints: New EPEC Series

Voyage 2050: Planning for Europe’s future in space from the point of view of three early career researchers

Post by Eleni Maria Ravanis, Hans Huybrighs and Ottaviano Ruesch on behalf of the Europlanet Early Career (EPEC) Future Research Working Group.

Space missions take a long time. From the initial idea, to financing the spacecraft and making its journey to a target body, and finally to the acquisition and analysis of data, the process can last several decades. This means that space agencies managing missions for the scientific community have to start planning decades in advance, which is why the European Space Agency (ESA) engages in long-term planning of its ‘scientific priorities’. But how does ESA define these future priorities? Enter ‘Voyage 2050’.

Voyage 2050 is the most recent iteration of ESA’s long-term planning of science priorities, for which ESA requests input from the scientific community. In March 2019, ESA led a Call for White Papers, where scientists were asked to submit papers focusing on scientific themes that could be addressed from 2035-2050, the period covered by Voyage 2050.  In October 2019, scientists from across Europe and the world gathered in Madrid to present and discuss their ideas, and now throughout to 2020, topical teams within ESA have been meeting to discuss these scientific priorities. Their recommendations will be made to the Director of Science later this year, and will shape the next 3 decades of space exploration for astronomy and planetary science, and thereby shaping the careers of many EPEC members.

Here at the EPEC Future Research Working Group, we talked with 3 early career planetary science researchers who are lead authors on these white papers to find out more about how they got involved and what they think planetary science will look like in 2050. We hope that their insight will also prove useful to any early-career researchers looking to get involved with NASA’s Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023-2032.

Voyage 2050 Viewpoints:

Voyage 2050 Viewpoint: Dr Ali Sulaiman

Voyage 2050 Viewpoint: Dr Ali Sulaiman

In this series from the EPEC Future Research Working Group, Eleni Maria Ravanis talked with three early career planetary science researchers who are lead authors on Voyage 2050 white papers to find out more about how they got involved and what they think planetary science will look like in 2050. 


Dr Ali Sulaiman
Dr Ali Sulaiman

Dr Ali Sulaiman is a post-doc at the University of Iowa in the USA. Originally from Lebanon, he completed his studies at Imperial College London in 2016, before staying on as a post-doc and subsequently moving to the US. He is the lead author of the white paper “Enceladus and Titan: Emerging Worlds of the Solar System.


What is the basic idea of your white paper?

The white paper I led outlines some unresolved science questions relating to Titan and Enceladus, and identifies the relevant scientific themes we recommend ESA cover during the Voyage 2050 planning cycle. We argue that addressing these questions are a logical follow-on to Cassini-Huygens and will make major advancements to the present knowledge we have about the Solar System, its formation, evolution and likelihood that other habitable environments exist outside the Earth’s biosphere.

How did you become involved in the white paper?

I came across an announcement by ESA back in March 2019, inviting the community to respond to their call for white papers for Voyage 2050. As a scientist who had worked on Cassini, the idea of Titan and Enceladus came naturally to me since these two planetary bodies had some of the biggest surprises of the mission. With those surprises came even bigger questions that Cassini was not able to answer. I got together with a small team of international scientists to exchange some big ideas, and when we established a clear vision of the white paper we wanted, we reached out to the wider community and got more experts on board to cover all the areas we wanted.

What advice do you have for early career researchers who want to get involved in the follow-up of the white papers presented at this workshop?

“Reach out to people, get out of your comfort zone, and don’t be afraid to share your ideas and visions.”

Dr Ali Sulaiman

The best advice I can give is the one I was fortunate enough to receive from my mentors: Reach out to people, get out of your comfort zone, and don’t be afraid to share your ideas and visions. It can be intimidating for an early-career scientist to take on board a new project, particularly if they choose to lead a team that has senior scientists and/or scientists who have expertise totally different from theirs. But once you overcome the mental barrier of reaching out, you’ll realise that most people share the same enthusiasm as you do – in advancing science and making progress in the community through enabling new missions. And as long as you have ideas to offer, the community will learn from you as much as you will learn from them. Each person brings to the table a unique set of expertise and background, however junior or senior they are.

What do you think planetary science will look like in 2050? 

“Part of what keeps planetary science alive are early-career scientists taking the initiative to lead or participate in white papers and decadal surveys, and I therefore strongly encourage all of my peers to consider taking up such roles.”

Dr Ali Sulaiman

I think the planetary science community will continue to grow into the future, especially in light of a growing appetite for lunar and planetary exploration in Asia and the Middle East (e.g. India’s Chandrayaan’s program and UAE’s Hope Mars Mission). These endeavours, as well as continued planetary programs by NASA and ESA, will demand a new generation of planetary scientists. It is therefore crucial that aspiring scientists from all backgrounds have access to educational resources and good mentorship, and early-career scientists are supported, guided, and made aware of funding opportunities to expand their research. Part of what keeps planetary science alive are early-career scientists taking the initiative to lead or participate in white papers and decadal surveys, and I therefore strongly encourage all of my peers to consider taking up such roles.

Historically, scientists have worked solely with space agencies to perform experiments in space and on planets. Do you think that the growth of private companies bringing payloads to space, e.g., to or around the Moon, is serious and mature enough for scientists to start collaborating with them?

Private companies are already making their mark in the space industry, and are filling in programs that agencies have terminated (e.g. human spaceflight). Keeping costs down is a priority in space missions, and the entry of more private companies into the competitive space industry will move towards lowering the cost of vehicles/payload. For that reason alone, I think scientific collaboration with private companies is inevitable.

More about Voyage 2050 Viewpoints.

EPEC Profiles – Joana Marques Oliveira

EPEC Profiles – Joana Marques Oliveira

In this series from the EPEC Communication Working Group, we meet members of the Europlanet Early Career (EPEC) community and find out more about their experiences and aspirations.

Joana Marques Oliveira is currently studying for a PhD at the Paris Observatory, section of Meudon. She is using occultations to study the atmosphere of Triton, focusing on an event that took place on the 5th October 2017, involving over 100 observers with both small and large telescopes, spread throughout Europe, Eastern America, and Northern Africa. Her goal is to find if the atmosphere changed in any way from Voyager 2’s fly-by in 1989 until the 2017 occultation event. This work is supported by the Lucky Star project, an ERC grant, led by her supervisor.


Joana Marques Oliveira. Credit: J. Desmars

Joana knew that she wanted to go into astrophysics from a young age, when she watched a movie about a female astrophysicist working in NASA. At that moment she realised that, not only astronomy was a career, but she could pursue it. She had a teacher in elementary school that helped her find how to start her career in this field, and she completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s programs in physics specialising in astronomy and astrophysics at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon, where her focus was on extragalactic astrophysics.

During those years, she was doing outreach at the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences, in Lisbon. Being involved with the outreach program helped open doors for her, as well as teach her a lot about outreach and assembling small telescopes, a key skill for occultations. She has done quite a large number of outreach astronomical observing events, including one at a correction centre for minors, an incredibly eye-opening experience. She has even helped organise four conferences thanks to this, and in two of which she was part of the Local Organising Committee (LOC).

Joana Marques Oliveira. Credit: Pedro Machado

She got involved with the Occultations group, through her outreach work. She was interested in the topic, and she decided to work with the scientist in charge of the group on the last year of her Master’s, on a project to study Venus’s atmosphere, where she got to go to Hawai’i to help in an observation mission. They were accepted for a bilateral project between Portugal and France, the Program Pessoa, for the years 2017 and 2018, called OccultGaia.

After her Master’s, she applied for several PhD programs, and she was accepted by the Portuguese Science and Technology foundation to work on the occultation topic here in Paris. She is supporting EPEC as Chair of the Finances Group, and as a member of the Diversity Working Group.

Being part of a group of young researchers has been amazing. We all have different areas of focus within Planetary Science, yet, and we all have the same objective: to build a supportive and dynamic group, with great activities for everyone. I never thought I’d be involved with EPEC, and I feel honoured that they have accepted me to be Chair of the new Finances Group.

Joana Marques Oliveira

More information about Joana Marques Oliveira:

Social Media: Instagram

Contact: joana.oliveira@obspm.fr

If you are an Early Career member of the Europlanet Society and would like to be featured in an EPEC Profile, find out more about how to submit your profile.

See all the EPEC Profiles.

Motivational Journeys – Carol Raymond

Motivational Journeys – Carol Raymond

For the final interview in our series of Motivational Journeys, we talk to Dr. Carol Raymond, Manager of JPL’s Small Bodies Program.

Dr Raymond started out studying started out studying geology and geophysics and joined JPL in 1990. She has served as Deputy Principal Investigator (PI) on the NASA Dawn Discovery Mission to Vesta and Ceres, two protoplanets in the Main Asteroid Belt, and as Dawn’s PI for the second extended mission.

In this interview, she tells us how her key piece of advice has been to stay flexible in following the path of your interest, and shares the positive experience of how collaborative teamwork can make great things can happen.


Watch all the interviews in our series of Motivational Journeys.

Inspiring Stories – Science to Go!

Inspiring Stories – Science to Go!

Science communication by scientists

In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Dr. David Píša, a researcher studying the plasma waves in space at the Czech Academy of Sciences, tells us how he and other researchers are organising outreach talks across the country.

Science to Go logo

As a scientist, have you ever experienced a situation when your friends or family were too embarrassed to ask you about your research? Have you ever asked yourself why that’s the case? Were they scared that they wouldn’t understand that top-notch research? Or do they not want to embarrass themselves by asking you ‘simple’ questions, and risk looking uneducated or asking something that may be obvious?

Because that’s exactly what happened to us, a group of PhD students finishing our respective studies in the Czech Republic. It was seven years ago when we decided to reverse the aforementioned situation and approached the problem of ‘question-asking shyness’ from the other end. We did not wait for questions, but instead wanted to proactively provide answers to our friends and families. The first event, named “Science is coming to your village”, took place in a small village deep in Eastern Bohemia.

About thirty friends and relatives came to hear what we were doing on that specific occasion. It was very satisfying to see how they were excited about our work. The complexity of the topics wasn’t an obstacle in any way; we were able to explain even complicated topics such as the vacuum or standard particle model. It was our small victory and motivated us for further work in this regard.

So what happened next? The ‘Science to Go!’ project was founded! This project connects scientists who are sharing their passion for science with a broad audience open to listening. It was quite wild in those times when two or three people were organising everything, including communication with the host venue, presenters, and promotion. However, the idea was stronger than the difficulties that we encountered. We ended up with a concept of three talks by different speakers about their research. Every presentation typically takes twenty minutes with the final ten minutes being dedicated to an open discussion. Each of the three talks is ideally from a different scientific field. This concept ensures that 1) the speaker is an expert, 2) the audience is more likely to see a topic matching their interest, and 3) the length is acceptable.

We started with a monthly event at the municipal library in Prague. A typical event presents three young scientists – this format sometimes alternated with a bigger show featuring a well-established scientist. The highlight was a presentation of gravitational wave observations by Prof. Podolsky (Charles University) that was attended by more than four hundred people!

Presentation of gravitational wave observations by Prof. Podolsky (Charles University)
Presentation of gravitational wave observations by Prof. Podolsky (Charles University). Credit: Science to Go

After two years we were forced to find a new venue for our events. We chose the Czech Scout Institute at the Old Town Square in Prague. They have been brilliant hosts and we’re still happily functioning there to this day. For our efforts, we were nominated for awards from the Czech Mathematics and Physics Society and the Czech Physics Society. We told ourselves that it was time to enlarge the organisation team and established ‘Science to Go!’ as a non-profit organisation. We accepted more than eight new core members, and a new era started. We created a division for social media and regional events.

Science To Go presentation at the Czech Scout Institute at the Old Town Square in Prague. Credit: Science To Go
Science to Go presentation at the Czech Scout Institute at the Old Town Square in Prague. Credit: Science to Go

Nowadays, the situation with COVID makes things a little complicated, as we are not able to host our events in person. But that doesn’t stop us! Every week, we broadcast a scientific talk on Facebook – one session on Mondays when the scientific concept is introduced, and then a followup Q&A session the following day where we engage with the audience and answer their direct questions online. While this has been working fantastically, we miss our regular attendees and are looking forward to meeting our audience in person again.

After more than six years in existence, the project has managed more than forty events across the whole country, visiting cities and even small villages. We have presented more than sixty scientists with their research.

Why are we different? Because we can come even to the smallest community and show top-notch science. Science to Go! is willing to continue and evolve. We are open to new enthusiastic people who want to communicate their research to anyone who listens.

Do you like this story and want more? Browse our archive of EPEC Inspiring Stories and get inspired!