The Adler 'Scope
Accidentally in love… with Titan
Header Image: Slipping into shadow, the south polar vortex at Saturn’s moon Titan still stands out against the orange and blue haze layers that are characteristic of Titan’s atmosphere. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Sarah Hörst, one of Dragonfly’s co-investigators, is an assistant professor of planetary sciences at Johns Hopkins University. She’s been a guest speaker at no less than three Adler events, and she has many fans on staff here (you should have seen our internal communications board blow up after the NASA announcement!). I had the opportunity to talk to Sarah a few weeks later. She told me that she didn’t set out to become a Titan expert, but now that she is one, she’s excited to tell the world what makes it so interesting.
Sarah has been (accidentally) studying Titan, Saturn’s largest moon and the second-largest natural satellite in our Solar System, since her undergraduate years at CalTech.
“I started working on Titan in undergrad—actually before Cassini got there,” Sarah explained. “They needed someone to do some observations on a telescope on campus every night…and felt like an undergrad could probably do it.”
Sarah got the job and, gradually, many of her class projects started to revolve around Titan. After graduation, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she found herself working with Saturn-related data from Cassini (not Titan, but Titan-adjacent—again, totally by accident). And when she made the move to graduate school for planetary science at The University of Arizona, she landed in a program led by a co-investigator of Cassini who had a whole team studying Titan.
“At that point,” Sarah laughed. “That’s kind of when the ship sailed. ‘Whelp, this is what I’m doing now.’”
Like every great accidental love story, this one has excellent chemistry. In particular, atmospheric chemistry. Sarah studies atmospheres to get an understanding of what role they play in the origin, evolution, and detection of life. And Titan is a unique world that currently has an atmosphere unlike many in our Solar System.
In fact, Titan is the only moon with a significant atmosphere. It’s made mostly of molecular nitrogen—the only other substantial molecular nitrogen atmosphere in the Solar System aside from Earth. Sarah says it’s possible that Titan’s atmosphere today may resemble an early version of Earth’s. The molecules in Titan’s atmosphere—carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen—are the same basic elements that make up all life on Earth.
Which brings us back to Dragonfly.
Dragonfly is a first-of-its-kind rotocraft lander that will look for signs of life—and conditions that are favorable to life—on Titan’s surface.
After years of accidentally finding herself drawn to Titan, it’s now actually part of Sarah’s job to convince the world that sending a spacecraft to Titan is very important. So important, in fact, that it may give us more insight about the origins of life on our own world—and other worlds that may be able to support, or have supported, life. She has to convince people that of all the questions humankind has about our Solar System, the ones they’re looking to answer with Dragonfly are the ones that scientists should be focusing on right now.
“Most of the time when we’re doing planetary science, we’re constrained by the things that already exist—mission data, instruments on the spacecraft, etc. It’s nice to sometimes think, ‘Ok, what kinds of things could we answer if we could have new data?’”
Dragonfly isn’t set to launch until 2026 and won’t land until 2034. In the meantime, Sarah will continue to assist on the science team as questions come up, help make sure the requirements for the instruments are nailed down and things are getting calibrated correctly, and develop a plan for how data analysis pipelines will work.
Sarah admitted that 2026 “sounds like it’s really far away, but for the most part [it] will happen in the blink of an eye.”
A Day Aboard the Neeskay
This July, I had the pleasure of joining a small group of teen interns, scientists, and podcasters onboard the research vessel Neeskay. As a lover of maritime history, open water, and Moby Dick, it was something of a wish-fulfillment for me. Like the infamous Captain Ahab and his motley crew, we were in search of an elusive quarry we couldn’t see or hear, an underwater target whose position we could only surmise. In our case, in place of a raging white whale, we sought out something that originated a bit farther afield: visitors from outer space.
I’d been invited to join the Aquarius Project on another hunt for meteorites at the bottom of Lake Michigan. Around nine AM, we arrived in Manitowoc, Wisconsin—myself, Chris Breskey (Teen Programs Manager at the Adler), three teen interns (Jack, Mike, and Liz), and a few others, including an audio engineer for the ongoing Aquarius Project Podcast. Before we unmoored, we all were tasked with the unexpected challenge of wriggling in and out of full-body immersion suits that must have weighed thirty pounds and felt more like straight-jackets than floatation devices. The Neeskay’s venerable captain Greg was kind enough to help me zip mine up when it became clear that my arms were unlikely to move.
Once successful, we set out across the waves under a crystal blue sky, the morning sun already blazing and the breeze gently coaxing us out of the harbor and into the deep.
As you may know, Adler teens are searching for fragments of a meteor that streaked across the sky in early 2017 and exploded somewhere off the coast of Lake Michigan. Scientists and teens have since narrowed down the likeliest path of entry for the extraterrestrial fragments and are using a magnetic sled, designed specifically for this mission, to search the murky depths for small rocks from elsewhere in our solar system.
It takes a while to get from shore to the designated tow zone. Built in 1953, 71 feet long and displacing sixty-two and a half tons, the Neeskay is a sturdy old boat with a long history of scientific contribution—but she isn’t known for her speed. That, coupled with the fact that each lowering of the magnetic sled takes around an hour to complete, meant that there was a lot of downtime. The teens kept busy making adjustments to equipment, analyzing samples, programming sensors, and sifting through mud. I, on the other hand, had little to do but swat flies.
So, in the tradition of my beloved 19th Century mariners who whiled away the summer days on the lazy seas of the Atlantic doldrums, I sat around, talked to the teens while they worked, observed, and drew little pictures—my own personal scrimshaw.
Here, for example, I wanted to capture a snapshot of the cluttered organization that was the “Wet Laboratory,” a space below the top deck, behind the captain’s bridge, where we watched a live video feed from the sled as it dragged across the lakebed. It was also the room where I sat with Mike, one of the three Far Horizons teens interns I met that day, and learned about the underwater sensor he was programming. As we talked, the boat engine rumbled below deck, small fans whirred above, and Mike demonstrated how the sensors recorded second-by-second data on external temperature, pressure, altitude, and depth. Here’s a closer look:
To collect useful data, the teens attached their underwater sensor to the key piece of equipment that makes the whole Aquarius mission possible: a submersible sled designed by teens and affectionately dubbed Starfall. A complex mash-up of magnetic wheels, spoilers, sensors, and “nut wizards” (a technical term—they were originally designed to capture acorns, balls, and other yard debris strewn throughout a messy lawn), Starfall is the workhorse of the Aquarius Project.
Several times throughout our voyage I watched from the decks as the crew lowered the Starfall beneath the waves and waved goodbye as it slipped into the dark. 85 meters down, it settled onto the lakebed, coaxing up a cloud of mud and quagga mussels on our computer screens that took a moment to clear up. When the dust had settled, an alien landscape appeared in the ghostly light of the ROV camera. Hundreds of feet below, under forty-six fathoms of water, muffled by darkness and pressures that would kill a human without specialized diving gear, the Starfall crawled along, with the hopes of Adler teens resting on its steel and PVC shoulders.
After about an hour trawling along the bottom at the Neeskay’s minimum speed, the mechanical pulley system dragged the probe back up from the depths. Then ensued a mad dash to collect any rocks the sled succeeded in sifting from the muck. I was happy to witness for myself the distinct magnetic action of a few of these finds, and while their origin (terrestrial or otherwise) hasn’t been verified as of the writing of this report, it was thrilling to see how a few little rocks can still capture the imagination and signify so much to us Earthlings.
I want to thank the Aquarius team for welcoming me on its expedition this summer. It was a voyage I won’t soon forget. The conversations, the science, the horizons and the waves—even the biting flies. When I looked out and listened to the water, stretching out for miles in every direction, I thought about the amazing fluke of coincidence that brought a visitor from outer space right here to a little stretch of lake we call Michigan, a reminder that the Universe isn’t so far away after all.
You, too, can follow along on this crazy journey by tuning into the Aquarius Project Podcast (available on iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher—or wherever you get your podcasts!). Hear the voices of Adler teens for yourself and take part in a once-in-a-lifetime mission to bring our meteorite back to light!
Sketches and drawings by Jonathan Russell.
Adler Staff Star: Telescope Teen Interns
For this month’s Adler Staff Star we’re highlighting our Adler Teen Telescope Interns. Read on to learn more about their time here at the Adler!
What prompted you to want to be a Summer Teen Intern at the Adler?
“My natural curiosity in space and of all things involving science is what really led me to intern at the planetarium. I also thought it would be a great way to network with others who share similar interests.” – Andres
“I was looking for my first job and the internship had some very interesting things that I was interested in trying.” – Quincy
“I used to intern at a different museum, and I really was interested in museums in general, then I got became interested in the different jobs out there in the museums” – Stephany
What’s the coolest thing you’ve learned since interning here?
“The coolest thing that I’ve learned while being an intern is how the Sun has an 11-year cycle. Learning about the different things that occur on the Sun was amazing as well.” – Andres
“The coolest thing I have learned here is how to make slime. I used to watch slime videos but I never knew how to make it, but now I do because of the Adler.” – Quincy
“The coolest things I learned here were how to plan an event and budget my money.” – Stephany
What’s your favorite exhibit, sky show, or experience at the Adler? Why?
“My favorite exhibit is the Mission Moon exhibit on the main floor. My favorite part of that exhibit is actually the Gemini 12 spacecraft.” – Andres
“My favorite exhibit is the Telescopes exhibit because you can look through the telescopes and then you can go and try to find out what you were looking at. It’s like a challenge to find what you saw.” – Quincy
“The Solar System gallery is my favorite exhibit because it gives you an idea about how far each planet is from the Sun.” – Stephany
Share one interIf given the opportunity, would you go to Mars?
“If given the opportunity I would go to Mars. However, I would rather design the rockets and rovers that would go to Mars—since I want to be an aerospace engineer.” – Andres
“Yes, I would go to Mars because I’d want to be the first person to land on Mars!” – Quincy
“Yes because if you die on Mars you’d be famous and you would die a hero.” – Stephany
Share one interesting fact about yourself!
“I love to travel and want to travel the world!” – Andres
“I play lacrosse!” – Quincy
“I like crafting and making stuff in my spare time.” – Stephany
Chicago Teens Find Safe Space at the Adler
Life as a teenager in Chicago can simultaneously be one of the most exciting and isolating things in the world. With public transportation and a host of cultural and academic institutions throughout the city, it’s easy to feel like the world is at your fingertips, but oftentimes there’s something missing: teen-friendly spaces.
(Add on to that the common stress of social injustices and a sense that no one is listening, and it’s easy to understand why teens in our age range can often feel unwelcome.)
Luckily, the Adler community is ahead of the pack, providing a variety of teen programs and spaces for teens to be unapologetically themselves. One of these programs is the Youth Leadership Council (YLC). Existing as a bridge between youth and Adler staff, YLC aims to give teens a seat at the table and provide them with a sense of agency.
In a conversation with the YLC staff sponsor l o t i, she described YLC as a “balanced, equal partnership between adults and young people. Teens and adults both have a lot to contribute, but we all have a lot to learn.” What better way to learn from each other than through direct collaboration?
While YLC is an advocacy program in a STEM centered institution, l o t i takes care to note it is not a STEM centered program; it is about providing space for young people to have access to STEM in a sustainable way.
A YLC alumnus, Cortland, finds this work important because he has noticed a stigma attached to Adler and STEM institutions within his network.
“No teens in my network saw the Adler as a place where teens could go and experience something new.”
While Cortland has a direct connection to Adler which allows him to be involved in the community, his main priority is engaging with teens and groups beyond the scope of the Adler community. Previous cohorts have focused on making space for teens at Adler and building connections with other local institutions such as the DuSable Museum and Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia.
This year, YLC will continue these partnerships but pivot to focus more on activism and advocacy.
“In the past, we’ve focused on making space, but what does making space mean in comparison to being inclusive?” l o t i poses as she explains her desire for YLC to be more active in promoting accessibility and “obvious systemic change.”
In a climate where “accessibility” and “inclusion” are often used as buzzwords with little backing behind them, it is easy for teens to become poster children for disillusioned youth, but in the case of YLC and the whole Adler community behind them, it is clear that these teens are not only being welcomed, they are being empowered as agents of change to make an actual difference.
Chicago’s Black Women in STEAM Series: Meet Christina
“Chicago’s Black Women in STEAM” is a series on The Adler ’Scope that highlights the awesome women of Chicago who are doing amazing things in science, technology, engineering, art, and math fields here in our own community. Meet women of varying ages, backgrounds, and interests and learn their unique stories.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Design
Postdoctoral Fellow at Northwestern University
What first sparked your interest in design?
It’s actually an interesting story. I went to college to become an electrical engineer because I grew up wanting to design electronics like my uncle who was an engineer. I was always a fan of the old school sci-fi shows and books that had the cool tech gadgets. I loved tinkering and coming up with ideas and was told that with my aptitude in math and science, I’d be a great engineer.
Midway through undergrad though I realized I hated engineering but I felt like I had to stick it out because my family was rooting for me. A couple of my guy friends were taking this Industrial Design studio course our junior year and, out of curiosity, I followed them to class one day and completely fell in love with it—the atmosphere of the studio and the ways the professors were pushing people to be creative. I took a Design Research class under Professor Martha Sullivan and I realized that I loved the aspect of considering how people interact with products. Designers get to explore the problem area that leads to a solution where I felt that as an engineer, I was just architecting solutions with no context to the phenomena that surrounds the problem. I wanted the work I did to ensure people’s needs were considered and their voices were prioritized: being in the field of design puts me closest to making that impact.
You were once a Design Intern at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino (so cool!). What was it like working with such a renowned company?
Apple is the mecca when it comes to design. Nowhere else will you find a group of folks more energetic and passionate about the most minute details. Everything was important, from the colors of font to the radius of product edges. It was a great place to ground your individual design aesthetic. My work environment was of course fun but also consistently motivating. A lot of Apple designers and engineers had big dreams and were finding ways to bring them to life, and it made you want to dream for yourself. The team dynamic—gave me friends for life, a lot of folks I still keep up with to this day. I loved it and miss it sometimes.
Can you tell us more about the work you’re doing at Northwestern University?
I’m a research fellow in the Inclusive Technology Lab in the Communication Studies department. My research focuses on designing technologies to support health equity among groups that are typically neglected. I’ve been working with a group of Black elders in the Washington Park area of Chicago, which is one of the most medically underserved areas in the US. My work combines the areas of human-computer interaction and health through community-based participatory design. I engage local community residents in all aspects of the design process from defining the research agenda to co-designing solutions alongside them. I’m exploring technology interactions both at the individual and community level and whether or not technology is a realistic solution to health challenges in lower-income communities. My work also explores how identity frames the ways people think about technology, the ways they use it, and ultimately their acceptance of it into their everyday lives. Alongside the technology aspect I’m exploring the design methods we use to engage with underserved populations and the ways to move towards more equitable design methods.
Since you research the intersection of design and human-computer interaction (HCI), what do you think are some of the challenges that arise from trying to merge the two?
I think both design and HCI are concerned with advancing humanity in a way that can be cool but scary if we’re not careful. I’m a huge fan of Afrofuturism in speculative fiction, a lot of which tells these cool stories of alternative futures where technology can extend life, replace human work, or transform socialization. So, I love how the nexus of design and HCI are essentially responsible for bringing about those futures and pushing the possibilities of interactive experiences. A challenge is that (without ethics) we run the risk of creating technology that further marginalizes certain communities or even targets them. A lot of the technologies emerging, such as artificial intelligence and facial recognition, don’t appropriately respond to Black and Brown folks right now, and in some instances have been found to disproportionately criminalize us. And if you look at who is designing a lot of these systems, you’ll realize how things like algorithmic bias occur and can be considered dangerous to certain communities. That is where technology can get scary and this field becomes just as much about ethics and responsibility as it is about innovation and creativity.
What advice would you give to young girls of color who are interested in pursuing careers in STEAM?
Don’t be afraid to dream and dream big. We’re seeing more and more Black and Brown women making their mark in STEAM across academia and industry. There’s no reason to believe you can’t start the company you have an idea for, become the first, or even lead the field in your particular area of expertise. I’d tell them to look at those of us out here now as possibility models and don’t be afraid to surpass what we’ve done.
Where do you hope to be career-wise in 10-20 years?
Million-dollar question. Doing research but maybe on a different scale. I like that academia allows me to deep-dive in an area and spend months to years there. It’s a great place for knowledge-generation without the pressures of being driven by a particular product. Ultimately, I want to get to a point where my work includes impacting policy in the realm of public health and digital access. I’m not sure if that looks like a research institute or sitting on advisory boards. I think publishing and presenting will always be a part of it because that is the currency in the world of research and advancement in tech and design. Part of the beauty of this field is that the possibilities as my career progresses are super fluid and open.
Keep Looking Up
Michelle Larson, PhD
If you receive a letter from me, it will likely end with my favorite call-to-action, “Keep Looking Up.”
And, while some have interpreted this phrase to have optimism as its intention, I have a much more literal request in mind. Look Up. Yes, you. Right now. I’ll wait… Chances are you noticed something you hadn’t noticed before. If you didn’t, keep looking up. You will.
If you’re inside, maybe you’ll spot the Moon out the window, like this shot below from inside the Adler. Did you know the Moon was visible from your window? Is it always there? Looking the same way? At the same time? Why not track it for the month and see? I’ll wait…
If you’re outside and it’s daytime maybe you’ll spot a beautiful halo around the Sun as ice crystals in the air bend its light. To the delight of my family, Sun halos are frequently present in Chicago—we have many pics!
Or, maybe you’ll see a cloud formation that looks like a giant star—fun stuff!—all made possible by looking up.
Are you addicted yet? We’re not done!
I just spent five glorious nights outdoors at a star party in northern Washington state with hundreds of fellow astronomy enthusiasts who stay up all night to observe the sky together. (Okay, I don’t make it all night, but I’m related to people who do.)
Each evening started with a chorus that spanned the observing field, “ISS!” “ISS!” “There’s the ISS.” Yes, the International Space Station could be seen passing overhead. It’s easy to see, more difficult to photograph. (As you’ll note in my attempt below.) But, by looking up, you too can enjoy this bright, rectangular, fast-moving spectacle—find out how at NASA’s Spot the Station website. Remember to wave; there are fellow humans up there!
The night sky also presents stunning views of the Moon—try it with binoculars!—and the planets: your first Saturn moment is truly unforgettable.
Join the Adler for one of our ‘Scopes in the City events to see for yourself. And, at this time of year, in particular, you might even catch a meteor shower! While more difficult to see from light-polluted or Moon-lit skies, visiting a dark sky location in mid-August will reward you with surprise-and-delight streaks of light that occasionally mark the sky as ice and dust left behind by a distant comet burns up in our atmosphere. Even when there isn’t a shower peak happening, it is not uncommon to see a meteor or two in a truly dark sky. (In fact, my favorite way to observe the night sky is lying on the ground or in a beach chair, looking up, soaking it all in. I put in many hours this way at the star party last week and saw a dozen or more meteors over the course of five nights.)
Whether you act on this call-to-action from me, or you use the annual occasion of the Perseid meteor shower to nudge you, remember to look up, and keep looking up. Inside or outside, daytime or night, there is much to discover. I’ll wait…
Adler Teens Meet NASA Astronaut
On May 15, 2019, some of our Adler Teens had the opportunity to have dinner with former NASA astronaut Dr. Peggy Whitson at a special dinner in the Grainger Sky Theater. The event took place the evening before our Women in Space Science Award Celebration where we honored Dr. Whitson for her achievements in the world of STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and math).
After the event, we talked to some of the teens about their experience meeting Dr. Whitson, as well as about the Adler Youth Voice Project presentations they shared during the event. Hear about their experience below!
What was your favorite part about sharing your team’s project with Peggy Whitson and Adler staff members?
“We all really enjoyed having our physical work printed out and available to read, and I personally felt really proud of having my comic printed out on such a large scale to view. The Adler Youth Voice Project was so much fun to work on, and it was really incredible to have our works being read by everyone.” —Ines
“At the dinner, I was able to share my writing and experiences from the Adler Youth Voice Project with Dr. Whitson. We discussed the importance of writing in science, which was awesome!” —Jane
What was it like to have a conversation with someone who has been in space? What was it like to talk to a female astronaut?
“Never before had I met an astronaut, let alone one who was a leader in her field and an inspiration for so many other women. Meeting Dr. Whitson was such an eye-opening experience because I got to hear her story as she would tell it.” —Stevia
“Given everything, I think it’s incredible that she can remain so grounded after her adventures. She was very wise and insightful on everything we asked her about, and we definitely had a lot to ask about!” —Ines
What was the most inspiring thing that Dr. Whitson said that struck a chord with you?
“A lot of what she said struck a chord with me, and if I had to choose, the most inspiring thing Dr. Whitson said was something so simple but understated—she said to keep fighting because opportunities do not always come to you.” —Margot
“Going into science is going to have enough intellectual challenges, and there is no reason to allow yourself to worry about what other people say you can and cannot do. I think that her response was perfect—we simply don’t have time to care about other people’s opinions on our own capabilities.” —Jane
What was the biggest takeaway you had when you left the event at the end of the evening?
“Dr. Whitson persevered even when she was rejected as an astronaut. When she became an astronaut, she continued to work hard, and she was able to problem-solve in tough situations in space. Dr. Whitson made all of my dreams and aspirations feel tangible.” —Margot
“The entire dinner and discussion were inspiring to say the least. Dr. Whitson really helped me realize my potential and I am even more excited to pursue astronomy in the future!” —Stevia
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