NASA JPL Scientist Heidi Becker wows students with her amazing work
"I had always wanted to be a ballerina," began Heidi Becker.
Luckily for her employers NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory — and, likewise, humankind — Becker's plans eventually changed. After studying the art of ballet in college and then working in experimental theatre for a decade, Heidi went back to school to pursue her passion for science. Years later, far from the ballet stage, Becker was working on something big. And when we say big, we mean big. Eventually, Becker and her team would successfully take groundbreaking photographs and navigate around the atmosphere of the largest planet in our solar system: Jupiter.
"You could fit 1,000 Earths inside of Jupiter," she said.
Sharing her story with a rapt crowd of Mirman students in Kindergarten through Upper School 4, Becker supplemented her talk with stunning videos and photographs taken by machines such as Juno, the satellite she helped engineer to explore Jupiter. "It's an incredibly scary place to send a spacecraft," she said, explaining that Jupiter has a notoriously active and stormy atmosphere.
Briefly explaining the science of Jupiter's magnetosphere, she took students through some of the problem solving that she and her team — a group so big they had to be captured in a wide-angle lens shot inside the Rose Bowl in Pasadena — had to undertake to eventually successfully photograph and navigate the atmosphere on Jupiter. It took them five years to get there, but in 2011, they successfully launched the Juno surveillance mission. Pictures of their findings are now readily available online at the JunoCam website, where Becker encouraged students to go to peruse and play with the images.
"These images are here for the public - not just for the scientists," she said. "Play with them, do art with them, and do your own science," she said, adding that citizen-scientists have contributed valuable work and understanding to the ongoing mission by using the site.
"It's such a beautiful, mysterious atmosphere," she mused while showing videos and photos taken with different processes. Infrared shots of fiery storm systems were met with "oohs" and "aahs" from the captivated crowd. "This is how big the universe is and how small we are. It's really kind of amazing!"
Becker also shared some of the mythology behind the names of the solar system, which was particularly relevant for the Room 5 students, who study mythology extensively. After her talk, Becker took questions from both Lower and Upper School students, whose curiosity had been clearly piqued by the demonstration. One of the most memorable student voices of the afternoon, though, was not a question at all.
"I've always wanted to be an astronaut," said second grader Nova R. "I'm going to grow up and go to Mars."
"If you see that there's something you can contribute," Becker advised her young and aspirational audience, "You have to go for it. No matter who you are or what you've done or what you used to do. Make it happen."