Planets in a Tank
Bob Whitby: Hello and welcome to Short Talks from the Hill, a podcast from the University of Arkansas. I’m Bob Whitby, a science writer at the university. Today we’re talking to Caitlin Ahrens, a Ph.D. candidate in the Space and Planetary Sciences program. Welcome Caitlin.
Caitlin Ahrens: Thank you.
BW: So in addition to being a Ph.D. student here, you also manage the Pluto lab at the Arkansas Center for Planetary Simulations, you’re a NASA solar system ambassador, you give lectures on space at the Fayetteville Public Library and you do a space-themed podcast on KUAF, and you were recently named an Outstanding young American for 2018. That’s pretty impressive. What keeps you so interested in space?
CA: Honestly, I think it’s the motivation of the public, truly getting a sense of community output through all the exploration that we have to look forward to, and then certainly NASA’s point of view in trying to get the public excited. So I’m kind of in a nice medium of being in the general public and then sharing with the public all that excitement.
BW: What got you interested to begin with? How did you develop your interest in space?
CA: I became a member of the Central Appalachian Astronomy Club at the age of 9 and that was my typical story; you get your first telescope and you join an astronomy club and it just kind of builds into meeting other astronomers, professors at a young age and realizing I can do this as a career, and then just knowing all the different branches of astronomy. It’s not just stars. It’s not just galaxies. You have the planets and then you have several different subcategories of planets, and it just kind of snowballed.
BW: Tell us a little bit about your work as the Pluto lab manager here at the University of Arkansas.
CA: Yes, so I helped design the Pluto lab back in 2015 when I started here for my doctorate program, and then utilizing it to actually study how ices behaved on Pluto. It’s astounding that the ices we can observe on Pluto and they’re actually very common. It’s methane, nitrogen, carbon monoxide, water ice. But knowing how they mix together, how do they behave? Do they become completely solid together? Do they become chunky? Do they become glassy? That is still unknown to us, so we can simulate Pluto conditions in the lab and try to mix together these ices and see what happens.
BW: So when you say design and build, it didn’t exist before you got here and it’s now an actual functioning lab, so there was a lot of planning and development.
CA: Absolutely. There was a lot of “oh, wait if we use this instrument, well, where do we find it?” And then we would ask other departments around the campus and see if they had a spare part for us to use.
BW: Tell us more about the chambers that you have in the labs.
CA: Absolutely, so we have five very special chambers. We have my Pluto chamber, but we also have two Mars chambers, one for astrobiology purposes and one for geologic purposes. We have a Titan chamber, which is our largest chamber it takes up practically two stories in our lab. So Titan is Saturn’s largest coldest moon. And then we have the Venus chamber, which is our hottest and tiniest little chamber as well. We keep that one across the building away from us for a reason. The rest of us work on ice and dirt and that one works with very heavy metal and fire. This is almost like a Game of Thrones scenario. We have the fire and ice.
BW: What kind of temperatures are we talking about?
CA: So, for the Venus chamber, it can go up to practically 900 degrees Fahrenheit. So pretty high and that’s practically a spring day on Venus. So pretty average temperatures there, down to the coldest, mine can go down to negative 440 degrees Fahrenheit.
BW: That’s the Pluto chamber?
CA: That’s the Pluto chamber. Yep. So nice range of temperatures. But they all do different things in different experiments, so that gets really interesting.
BW: Have you made any big discoveries?
CA: Oh goodness, maybe not big, big discoveries. To us they’re big because then we know that, “Oh good, that worked. Let’s write a paper on it” kind of deal. So to us they’re big. We’re still trying to publish papers to where these some of these chambers are still fairly new, but we can try to do how salt reacts seasonally on Mars, the Titan chamber has recently developed a way to create a bubbling effect with some of the lakes that we found on Titan through Cassini, which is pretty cool, and then my Pluto chamber. Not a lot of work has been done with carbon monoxide. And so trying to fill in the gaps of data back from the ’60s and our poor understanding of that, and trying to develop more on the chemistry of that.
BW: So you’re also a NASA solar system ambassador. What is that?
CA: Yes. So it’s actually a program from the NASA JPL Jet Propulsion Laboratory out in California. And what it does is that it’s a nationwide outreach program where you can be affiliated with NASA as a volunteer and you can get materials from NASA and they allow you to go to classrooms to try to teach lectures and telecoms. But it’s a way for it to be a little bit more official of an outreach coordinator.
BW: And you give lectures at the Fayetteville public library. What are the topics?
CA: Actually, I just do a whole range of topics. I don’t try to stick with planetary. So I I’ve done a radio astronomy, so listening to the cosmos is always a fascinating topic. I’ll be doing a lecture coming up on space travel, how our perception of space travel has moved from science fiction to science fact; Mars geology, now how geology can rapidly change or slowly change via seasons on Mars. And certain missions. Like the Cassini mission, the New Horizons missions, timelines of missions. Yeah, so just a whole range of fun stuff.
BW: It sounds like a pretty exciting time to be in this field, a lot going on.
CA: It’s very exciting. There is a lot to look forward to now we have the Europa Clipper mission to study Europa, which is one of Jupiter’s icy moons. We have the ExoMars lander is supposed to be landing fairly soon. We just picked the site for the Mars 2020 rover, so there’s a lot to come up. We have the Dragonfly versus Caesar missions, that decision will be made hopefully in August, so Dragonfly will study Titan and Caesar is going to study comets and they’re competing for NASA money right now, only one will be chosen.
BW: And obviously, we’re recording this about a week after we just saw the very first picture of a black hole. What was your reaction to that?
CA: It’s astounding, absolutely astounding, and it’s incredible the amount of work dedication and honestly the technology to utilize all those telescopes around the world. It’s not the product of just one telescope and one camera and one person, it’s practically nations coming together to work toward this one goal and it’s absolutely astounding the amount of collaboration, and we should really try to push forward more with that.
BW: So what are you gonna do in the future after you finish your Ph.D., where do you go from here?
CA: Hopefully a postdoc somewhere. A postdoc program is usually under NASA or some sort of research facility, just kind of go right into almost like a training period to go into more higher in-depth research, and then hopefully just get a job, right into hopefully mission operations. I’m really interested in trying to drive toward more missions for planetary objectives.
BW: Working for NASA?
CA: NASA, or Southwest Research Institute is an option as well. So they work alongside NASA.
MM: Music for Short Talks From the Hill was written and performed by Ben Harris, guitar instructor at the University of Arkansas. For more information and additional podcasts, go to kuaf.com or researchfrontiers.uark.edu, the home of research news at the University of Arkansas.