GCP 42: Norwescon - Catherine Plesko
From Burlington, WA, Cathy studied physics and astronomy at the University of Washington and got her PHD at UC Santa Cruz in Geo Physics. She now studies asteroids and commits and what happens when they collide with each other and other planets. She has been interested in astronomy since a child.
Norwescon was one of her first cons she attended, and has attended throughout the years. She became the science guest of honor for Norwescon 37 after Laurie, staff in charge of programming, contacted her for recommendations. Cathy suggested Amy Mainzer, an American astronomer, specializing in astrophysical instrumentation and infrared astronomy. Amy was unable to make it last year, so she stepped as the guest of honor.
The discussion then goes to how she ended up in New Mexico. In high school she had the opportunity to do a summer program through Earth Watch, a company that sends people on a working vacation to offer field assistance to scientists all over the world. She got to go to Los Alamos, helping scientists look for different sites where they wanted to put a new observatory. The observatory today has several telescopes on it. The scientists that created it were the first people to take multiple telescopes and do special photograph techniques where they can add the images and instead of having one telescope looking at the star, they have an image that looks like it was made by one telescope with a mirror the size of the distance between all of the telescopes standing in a row. After finishing school she ended up going back a few years later to Los Alamos where she resides today.
We then dive into her normal day at work, which is little different from what Brogan anticipated: a super-space radar looking for meteors that will be hitting earth at any time. With some of the fastest super computer clusters in the world, she takes information from her friends at JPL, which beams radar at objects as they come towards the earth. From the radar JPL gets a shape model back, which they send to her (you can find the asteroid shape models online and print 3D little models of asteroids. For info on 3D printing, check out our interview with FabLab here: Episode 33: FabLab). She then takes the data and imports them into computer programs that has the laws of physics, and then poses different problems, such as what would the crater look like after an asteroid is hit by a cannon ball. Pretty much, her day to day is playing really, really high fidelity asteroids games. She is mainly focused on the solar system for her work.
We also discuss current space missions. One is the Rosetta mission, where the European space agency is orbiting a commit. After the lander bounced on a comet and got stuck between two rocks, the agency is working to try and reboot it in the next month when the solar panels work better to get it working again. Through the Rosetta mission and the NASA Dawn Mission, which has gone to two of the biggest asteroids in the belt, scientists are starting to see that asteroids and comets are much more alike than they originally thought.
The podcast finishes up talking about her favorite part of her job: the variety of it. No two days are the same, she gets to travel, talk to the public, go to academic conferences, and was part of a space mission with NASA. Known as the Lcross Mission, she was able to watch something she helped design, land on the moon, which was a very spiritual experience for her.