Brittney Cooper loves studying weather – and she's taking that passion all the way to Mars. A graduate student at York University in Toronto, Cooper has spent the past two years working with the science team for NASA's Mars rover Curiosity. In January, she authored her first science paper on a study she designed with the Curiosity team that looked at how clouds scatter light and what that tells us about the shapes of their ice crystals. Despite her involvement in the Curiosity mission, the Canada native has never actually been to a NASA center. But that's about to change this summer when she'll embark on her first internship at JPL in Pasadena, California. We caught up with Cooper to find out what she's looking forward to most about her internship and how she's planning to take her studies of Martian clouds even farther.
You're currently earning your master's at York University in Toronto. What are you studying and what got you interested in that field?
I'm doing my master's in Earth and space science. But if you really want an interesting story [laughs] … I've always been interested in astronomy, space and science, but I also really love art. Coming to the end of high school, I realized that maybe it was going to be too hard for me to pursue science. Maybe I was a little scared and I didn't really think I was going to be able to do it. So I went to university for photography for two years. After two years, I realized photography wasn't challenging me in the right ways and wasn't what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I left. I did night school to get credits for calculus and all the grade-12 physics and chemistry that I needed to pursue a degree in atmospheric science, which is not even remotely astronomy, but I've also always loved weather – pretty much anything in the sky. I still had a passion for astronomy, so I started volunteering at the Allan I. Carswell observatory at York. There, I met a professor who I ended up doing research with for many years. He told me, "There's the field called planetary science, where you can study the atmospheres of other planets and you can kind of marry those two fields that you're interested in [astronomy and atmospheric science]." So I ended up adding an astronomy major.NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission and he was graduating. John had said something along the lines of, "There's an opening, and I know it's always been your dream to work in mission control, so do you want to be on the mission?" And I was, like, "Yes, I definitely do!" I couldn't believe it. And I was never intending to do a master's, but then I realized I really loved the work I was doing, working on constraining physical properties of Martian water-ice clouds using the Mars Curiosity rover. We got to design this observation, which ran on the rover, and then I got to work with the data from it, which was really cool. So I stayed on to do my master's, and I'm still on the mission, which is pretty awesome.
In January you authored your first science paper on that research. Tell me more about that.
My research focuses on the physical scattering properties of Martian water-ice clouds. A lot of people don't even realize that there are clouds on Mars, which I totally get because Mars doesn't have much of an atmosphere. But it does have enough of an atmosphere to create very thin, wispy, almost cirrus-like clouds similar to the ones we have on Earth. They're made up of small, water-ice crystals. These kinds of clouds do have a noticeable impact on Earth's climate, so we have now started thinking about what these clouds are doing in Mars' climate. The scattering properties can tell us a bit about that. They can tell us how much radiation is scattered back to space by these clouds or kept in Mars' atmosphere and whether or not we can see really fun things like halos, glories and different types of optical phenomena that we can see here on Earth.
We designed this observation that uses the Navcam imager on Curiosity. The engineering folks with the mission helped us design it. I got to present at a science discussion, which was superscary, but everyone was so kind. And then the observation was approved to run on Mars once a week from September 2017 to March 2018. During this observation window, Curiosity would take images of the sky to capture clouds at as many different scattering angles as possible. Once we got all the data back, we were able to constrain the dominant ice crystal shapes in the clouds based upon this thing called the phase function, which tells you how these clouds scatter light and radiation. I was the lead author on the research paper that came from that, and it got accepted. We started working on this right when I was really new to the mission, and it was my first paper. I couldn't believe everyone wasn't, like, "Who the heck are you? Why are we going to let you do anything?" But everyone was so kind, and it was just such a great experience.
What was the hardest part about writing that first paper?
The hardest part was probably just getting over the fear of thinking people aren't going to listen to you or you aren't going to be smart enough or you won't be able to answer questions. It was really just getting over my own fears and worries and not holding myself back because of them. I have a really great mentor who pushed me to do all these things, so I was able to suck it up and say, "If he believes in me and he thinks I can do it, maybe he's right." Every time I did a presentation or I would talk about the observation or try to advocate for it, I was just met with such positivity that I was, like, "OK, these fears are rooted in nothing."
In July, you're coming to JPL for your first internship here. What will you be working on?
Yes, I'm so excited! I'll be working with two scientists, Michael Mischna and Manuel de la Torre Juarez. We're going to be working with the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station, or REMS, which is an instrument on Curiosity that measures the temperature, relative humidity and pressure around the rover on Mars. From those measurements, we're going to try to infer the presence of clouds at night. So far, the way we've used Curiosity to study clouds is with optical instruments [or cameras]. So we take pictures of the clouds. But that's not really something we can do at night. So using REMS and its temperature sensors at night, we can try to see if clouds around the rover are emitting infrared radiation, heating up the atmosphere around the rover. We can try to detect them that way. So that's what we're going to try to do – look for some patterns and see what we can come up with. We'll also be comparing what we find with data from NASA's Mars Climate Sounder, which is in orbit around Mars and takes nighttime measurements of the atmosphere.
What are you most excited about coming to JPL?
I would be lying if I said it wasn't just getting to come to a NASA center – especially as a Canadian. It's every little space enthusiast's dream. I'm also excited to meet all the people who I've been working with for the last two years. The people are such an awesome part of this mission that I've been a part of. So I'm looking forward to meeting them in person and working with them in a closer way.
What do you see as the ultimate goal of your research?
We're just trying to better understand Mars. It's kind of a crazy place. There is a lot of evidence that shows us that there's a lot more going on than we know now and it's just about trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. There are also a lot of similarities to Earth. So we can try to take what we learn about Mars and apply it to our planet as well.
What's your ultimate career goal?
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What I would really love is to work in spacecraft operations. I absolutely love working in science and working with data, but getting a chance to be a part of this mission and do operations – be part of a team and do multidisciplinary work – it's so exciting, and it's something that I never thought that I'd get to experience. And now that I've had a bit of a taste, I'm wanting more. So that's what I'm hoping for in the future.
Do you ever think about how you moved away from studying photography but are using photography to do science on Mars?
Yes! Every once in a while, that hits me, and I think to myself, "That's so cool." It's just very, very cool. Ten years ago, I never thought I'd be where I am now. But also just to know that there's that connection, that I'm working with visual data, with optical data – I don't think it's a coincidence. I really love working with images, so I think it's pretty cool that I get to do that.
Just one last fun question: If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?
Without a doubt, it would have to be [Saturn's moon] Titan. I actually would probably go there to study the atmosphere. The first research project that I ever did was trying to find methane and ethane fog on Titan and the surface data was quite limited, so I would like to go there. I want to see water-ice rocks. I want to see methane lakes and methane rain, set up a little vacation spot there [laughs].
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