JPL intern Camille V. Yoke is building a thruster like the one that might send astronauts to Mars in the future. The University of South Carolina physics major shares how she’s shaping the future of electric propulsion and why she’s a fan of the “Mark Watney lifestyle.”
What are you working on at JPL?
I am working on a thruster – which is what makes a spacecraft accelerate while it's in the vacuum of space – similar to one that we could ultimately use on either a manned mission to Mars, a cargo mission to Mars, or other future manned missions. I am building what's called a cathode. It goes into an electric propulsion thruster and creates a plume of plasma. My job this summer is to test that plasma and see whether or not we can improve upon previous generations of the same technology.
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What's a typical day like for you?
I have an office in a lab. Usually, in the morning, I talk with my mentor about the data that I've collected the day before. Then I either continue collecting data of the same variety or we decide that we need something new. The lab that I work in has three very small vacuum chambers, in which we create a plasma plume. I measure things like the density and temperature of the plasma at different positions. Then, I study the data to see what I’ve found.
What have you found out so far?
The technology I work on is the third-generation cathode for this thruster. The major difference between the third and the second generation is that we're giving the cathode extra fuel in different places. We actually learned today that it might be causing the temperature of the thruster to be much lower than it was previously, which is probably good news – but we don't know yet. We're going to launch into doing more rigorous tests and figure out whether or not that's a mistake in how we were testing it or if that's a pattern of this new technology.
What is electric propulsion and what makes it different than fuel propulsion? Why is it being considered for Mars and manned missions, specifically?
Electric propulsion is really good for deep space missions, meaning those going any farther than the Moon, because it can run for many thousands of hours. It requires power to run an electric thruster, which used to be an issue for NASA, but now large solar arrays are used on spacecraft to generate a lot of power. So for many proposed thrusters, the only limiting factor is the fuel. A main advantage of electric thrusters over chemical propulsion is that less fuel is required, so it’s less expensive to get these thrusters into space. This could be important for manned missions in the solar system, such as a manned mission to Mars, which may require lots of cargo shipments.
How do you think you're contributing to NASA missions and science?
Today there was a brief period in which I knew something that nobody else on the planet knew – for 20 minutes before I went and told my boss. You feel like you're contributing when you know that you have discovered something new. I'm a student, so I'm learning and I think that's an important contribution, too. Learning about all these technologies in order to advance them forward when the current experts retire or leave is really important.
If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?
I've read a lot about potential floating cities to study Venus, and those always seem really neat. I'm also a fan of the Mark Watney style of life [in “The Martian”], where you're stranded on a planet somewhere and the only thing between you and death is your own ability to work through problems and engineer things on a shoestring. There's this sign in my lab that reads, "Danger, high voltage" and there’s another that reads, “There's nitrogen in this room. Two breaths of pure nitrogen will knock you out.” That’s why I really like applied physics; if you do it wrong, it will kill you. So If I ended up in a situation like Mark Watney’s on a floating city on Venus, I wouldn't complain. It would be pretty cool.
Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern
The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.
When people ask me what I want to do with my life, I tell them, "Every little kid wants to be an astronaut when they grow up - but I never outgrew it." It was in eighth grade that I realized I wanted to be an astronaut and explore our solar system. The journey wasn't always easy, however. I was consistently laughed at and made fun of in high school when I would tell people that my dream was to work at NASA and one day become an astronaut. No one really expected me to stick to those dreams, let alone accomplish them.
Fast forward a few years, and I
entered college at the Florida Institute of Technology, where I
double-majored in physics and space science to learn more about stars
and comets. One moment I will never forget is orientation day for my
department. A professor asked the freshmen in the room who wanted to be
an astronaut, and every hand in the room shot up. I knew I was in the
In my sophomore year, an upperclassman sent an email around about a scholarship-internship program with NASA, called MUST (Motivating Undergraduates in Science and Technology). I figured it was a long shot, but decided to apply. To my delight, I was selected and given the opportunity to begin living out my dream by interning at Kennedy Space Center for the summer. I worked for Dr. Philip Metzger, a granular physicist who leads NASA's research into rocket blast effects for manned missions. In the Granular Mechanics and Surface Systems Laboratory, I designed and built experiments to study how the spray of lunar soil from a landing rocket will impinge upon and damage hardware at a future lunar outpost.
This NASA experience changed the course of my career, in a very good way. I suddenly realized I was far more interested in the surfaces of planets and in planetary exploration than in stars and astrophysics, and decided after that summer to pursue planetary science for my graduate studies.
I returned to KSC the next summer to work with Dr. Metzger on a new project that involved studying the compaction and magnetic properties of lunar soil using various experimental methods. We were working on developing more effective ways to store large quantities of soil for mining.
The summer before starting graduate school, I was offered an internship at JPL working on the proposed MoonRise mission, lead by my (soon-to-be) advisor, Dr. Bradley Jolliff. MoonRise would have been a robotic sample return mission to the lunar farside. I was part of a team of students who were tasked with designing an instrument to fly on the spacecraft. We designed a camera system that would have flown on the communications satellite and detected impact flashes from impacting meteorites. Unfortunately, MoonRise was not selected to fly, but the experience shaped my future career path. I realized I really enjoy the mission design and planning process and decided that summer that I wanted to both study the moon and plan for future missions.
I am now a couple years shy of having my Ph.D. in Earth and Planetary Science, and have loved the journey. My research focuses on studying the effects of rocket exhaust on lunar soil properties and volcanic complexes on the moon. Once I have finished my graduate studies, I plan to apply for a position at NASA and become involved in mission planning. I hope to work on the problems associated with rocket exhaust effects on planetary surfaces and continue to research geologically interesting locations on the moon. Ultimately, I plan to apply to become an astronaut candidate and maybe even become the first woman to walk on the moon! My NASA internships helped me realize my true passions and have paved the way for the career path I want to take. I'm incredibly happy in the field I'm in and hope that funding for both NASA and NASA education programs continues so that other students with dreams like mine have a chance to see them come true.