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Earth to Pluto – Cathy Olkin, Planetary Scientist to Speak at STEAM Fest

Rocky Mountain STEAM Fest is honored to present Cathy Olkin, of the Southwest Research Institute, at 4pm on Sunday, September 6th.

Cathy is a planetary scientist at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, CO.   Her main topic of research is the outer solar system, specifically planetary atmospheres and surfaces.

Cathy enjoys chasing the shadows of stars to learn about planetary atmospheres through ‘stellar occultation’ observations. These events have taken Cathy to many exotic locations from Hawaii, to the Marshall Islands, Australia, South Africa and Switzerland.

She also enjoys studying the ices in the outer solar system.  On Pluto, Triton and other bodies, molecules that are usually in gaseous state on Earth are solid at the cold temperatures of the outer solar system.  Using infrared spectroscopy, spreading infrared light into its separate wavelengths, we can learn about these ices including methane ice, nitrogen ice, carbon monoxide ice and ethane ice.03_Olkin_01

Cathy didn’t always know that she wanted to be a planetary scientist.  As a child, she was interested in many different subjects including how things worked.  She liked to take household items (like the phone) apart.

Cathy attended MIT where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Aerospace and Aeronautical engineering in 1988.  She then proceeded to Stanford to earn a Masters degree in the same field.  After that, Cathy took a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) where she worked in the Navigation section on the Cassini mission (well before it launched).

Motivated by the exciting science of the Cassini mission, Cathy decided to go back to MIT to study planetary science.  She obtained her PhD at MIT in 1996 based largely on airborne astronomical observations used to study the atmosphere of Neptune’s largest moon, Triton.

From there, she worked at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona investigating the rings of Saturn and using data from the Hubble Space Telescope to measure the mass ratio of Charon (Pluto’s largest moon) to Pluto.

NH_NationalAirAndSpaceMuseumCathy now works at Southwest Research Institute where she is currently the Deputy Project Scientist for NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto.  Working on New Horizons is the perfect job for her, combining her background in engineering and her scientific interests. The spacecraft traveled more than 9 years and 3 billion miles to reach the Pluto system. This summer, New Horizons spacecraft flew through the Pluto system taking the first ever high-resolution images of Pluto and its surface.  The data from the encounter with the Pluto system is continuing to be returned to the ground, and we can already see that this information has transformed our understanding of the Pluto system.