Friday, February 26, 2010

Fun with Dr. Heidi Hammel

I had the privilege to sit down and be wowed by Dr. Heidi Hammel of the Space Science Institute in Boulder Colorado. She was in Cincinnati for a couple of days and was kind enough to pay the Cincinnati Observatory a visit and give a presentation on the Ice Giants, Uranus and Neptune. Dr. Hammel is the senior research scientist at the SSI.

A little back ground might be in order here so here goes...She received her undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982 and her Ph.D. in physics and astronomy from the University of Hawaii in 1988. After a post-doctoral position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena, California), Hammel returned to MIT, where she spent nearly nine years as a Principal Research Scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. Hammel primarily studies outer planets and their satellites, with a focus on observational techniques.An expert on the planet Neptune, she was a member of the Imaging Science Team for the Voyager 2 encounter with the gas giant in 1989. Her latest research involves studies of Neptune and Uranus with Hubble and other Earth-based observatories like the Keck 2 Telescope and the NASA infrared Telescope located on Mauna Loa in Hawaii. Dr.Hammel is also an Interdisciplinary Scientist for Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled for launch in 2011. She is designing the workings of the Webb Space Telescope. Hammel received the 2002 American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences (AAS/DPS) Sagan Medal for outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public.

I have heard a lot of PHD speak before. Dry stodgy and overhead of all but two people in the room. You know them well I suspect. Well Heidi Hammel was none of those things. The Sagan Medal is well deserved I can tell you. Dr. Hammel has a wonderful delivery of the facts that are wrapped in her personality. She is entertaining and engaging. Because of Heidi Hammel, we now know so much more than ever about Uranus and Neptune. When Voyager took some pictures of Uranus and sent them back to the JPL in Pasadena for study there just wasn't much to study. After weeks of careful study they were able to come up with ten clouds mixed in the haze that is Uranus. The Hubble Space Telescope and the Keck Telescope with its new adaptive optics changed how we look at Uranus and Neptune. For Uranus, the surface came alive with dark spots, clouds and even subtle banding showed up. The rings of Uranus came alive showing more detail than one would even have hoped for.

We now know Uranus and Neptune are very dynamic. A lot of questions are being raised because of these new discoveries, like what makes Neptune warmer than Uranus? How about Why do the Huge Dark spots on Neptune disapear and then reapear at other areas? These stochastic changes shouldn't happen within a year or so time frame. Let's try a 100 years for these big changes to occur. That is, with our current models. It looks like our current models might need a slight tuneup.

There are no other flybys till 2015 by New Horizons on its way to Pluto. (Does poor Pluto still need to be capitalized or have the powers that be stripped Pluto of that dignity also?) Just kidding there IAU! There is nothing more scheduled for the future so ground based telescopes will start picking up the slack more and more. Hubble will not be around forever maybe 5 -8 more years?

The James Webb Telescope set to launch into space in 2011 may be a help. It is a massive 6.5 meter space telescope looking at the universe in infrared.I believe infrared is really the next big thing. We can see farther back in time. We can see temperature changes using Infrared which is a big deal as far as research is concerned it tells a lot about what is going in on with the target.

I did get a one question interview with her. Yeah I know, Steve! You carry some clout! I told her about my blog and that I would make her famous. That made her laugh and she granted me the Mini-interview. After all, we had to eat some cake for the Cincinnati Observatory Center's director Craig Niemi's birthday. My Question was of all the things Dr. Hammel has had a hand in, what was the single thing that she is most fond of? Her answer was the Shoemaker Levy 9 comet impact on Jupiter. You might remember her. She was the media goto person for the science community when all this was happening. I think I saw her on all of the channels at one point or another describing this event. It was unexpected and for her to witness it while it was unfolding was amazing to say the least. That was her biggest wow. One thing that touches me about Dr. Heidi Hammel is the fact that she loves public outreach. She gets it, she really does about making astronomy and its related fields come alive for people. Out reach that might one day start the dreams of the next Kepler or Galileo. Until next Time...

Clear skies and great seeing too!

Steve T

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