Off Like a Rocket!

Submitted on October 20, 2016
OSIRIS-REx launch, Sarah Sutton, Sarah and her sister Cathy with Saturn V rocket

University Fellow Sarah Sutton was recently in Florida to witness the launch of the OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu.  The images she creates from the data the probe will be sending back when it reaches its destination will help mission planners choose the best site to bring the probe within “arm’s reach” of the asteroid, to allow it to collect a sample that will be brought back to Earth.  She talks with Terry Pitt-Brooke about how an artist ended up in Planetary Science, the power of math, mentoring, collaboration and much more.

T: So, let’s cut to the latest news: OSIRIS-REx.  It must have been a thrill to have been there at the launch.  Have you seen one before?

S:  I have seen a launch before!  The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is an active mission at the Moon right now: I was at that launch in 2009.   Unfortunately, that day was overcast, so the rocket disappeared into the clouds after about a second, but then the sound hits you and it’s still awesome.  But this time it was a whole different experience—it was a crystal clear day, it was sunset, and everything was perfect.

T. So is part of you and your work traveling towards Bennu right now, or does your work involve processing what comes back? 

S Good question!  What we do is called photogrammetry--making measurements with images.  What that really translates into is making a 3D topography model.  So we’ll be taking images of Bennu, the asteroid’s surface, in a particular strategy to build these topography models.  We are coming up with one method for characterizing the surface topography of the candidate sample sites. That‘s when OSIRIS-REx descends to the surface of the asteroid to collect a sample to bring back to earth.  So it’s a little terrifying to be responsible for that. I’m working together with another person at the HiRISE (a Martian orbiter project) operations center, to come up with a procedure using known methods from HiRISE and the LRO, and we’ll adapt that procedure to the OCCAMS suite of instruments on OSIRIS-Rex.

T:  Does Bennu have enough gravity to capture a probe in orbit?

S:  It can be done, though it’s tricky.  The worst part is when they go to get the sample; they have to match the rotation rate of the asteroid, so they can just dip down and touch the surface with their sample acquisition arm (which is just a few meters long) and “touch and go.”

T. Wow.

S It’s an incredible mission

T. So, except for actually being an astronaut, you’ve got every 10-year-old science geek’s dream job—actually making other worlds visible.  Can you tell us how you got to where you are now?

S. I actually started out in Art.  I got an Art degree from University of Arizona, and had an art career for about 10 years, and then at some point I decided I wanted to go back and study Mathematics, which I’d always been interested in, but never found a way to incorporate into my life. But I did it; I went back to get a Bachelor’s degree in Science and Mathematics. While I was doing that, I got a Space Grant internship with Geography and used remote sensing data from Landsat and MODIS to look at vegetation recovery after the 2002-03 forest fires on Mount Lemmon.  That was a really great project because I got to learn about remote sensing data analysis techniques.  It was a case of Mathematics letting me do whatever I wanted to do.  I minored in Planetary Science, which was super fun. 

Then, after the Space Grant internship, still as an undergrad, I approached Alfred McEwen, who is the Principal Investigator of the HiRISE instrument on the Martian Reconnaissance Orbiter.  At that point, the MRO had just successfully entered Mars orbit. This was what I really wanted to do: planetary science. I made an appointment with Professor McEwen, told him my background and asked if I could volunteer to help out with the many images the probe would be sending back.  He thought about it and said “Why don’t I just offer you a job?”  I said: “Wow, OK . . . Sure!” So as a student employee, I started helping to process the three band color (near-infrared, red visible and blue-green visible light).  The resulting color images show us compositional differences on the surface.  The first year I spent developing the processing pipelines that automatically generate these products, which is not trivial.  When I graduated, I transitioned into a full-time job making the digital topography models of Mars.  And that’s what I’ve been doing since then, until I decided to pursue a PhD program in Planetary Science.  Right now I’m involved in four active missions, and it’s a big appeal for me to stay here.  It’s really important to continue to work on active missions and stay involved because it’s actually quite difficult to get into such a situation.  I’ve been so fortunate to be here because Tuscon is a fantastic place for Planetary Science and Astronomy.  So, I’m still working part time and going to a PhD program.  It’s a lot, but it’s worth it.  I did that before when I went back to study math, so I knew what I was getting into.

I’m working on HiRISE, the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter, and OSIRIS-REx.  Also a European camera, CaSSIS, which is on its way to Mars now. It’s going to arrive October 19th, I think… that’s really soon.  Quite a lot of things going on, but I’m really excited about all of them.

T:  You seem to be a one-woman model for interdisciplinary work.  Do you have any reflections on that?

S:  I really am.  That’s a really important thing to me.  That’s one of the reasons I love planetary science, because you have to be interdisciplinary.  You have to learn about orbital dynamics, and you have to understand chemistry and geochemistry.  You have to understand physics, and mathematics, and geology, and biology--especially if you’re interested in astrobiology (a huge topic right now, because we’re looking everywhere we can for life and life signatures).  And surprisingly, my past career as artist has come into some play.  It seems surprising how it works out, but everything you learn ends up going into what you end up doing. 

I have to say Alfred MacEwen, the PI of HiRISE, has a very finely tuned aesthetic eye.  The images we get are very beautiful, and he very much appreciates that and promotes it.  I think this is a way we can connect with the public.  Even a person who doesn’t understand the scientific significance of what they’re seeing can look at a Martian landscape and appreciate that it has a lot of beauty and variety, and it’s not very different-looking from our world in some ways.  That helps people understand what we’re doing and how it’s important.

T:  That’s what I meant when I said you have the dream job of every 10-year-old.  Spectrographs of distant galaxies may yield incredibly exciting scientific information, but they’re nothing to look at.  Your work yields important scientific and practical information, plus you make other worlds real to the rest of us.

S:  And to the students who work in the lab, validating the images, who get to see the images [in 3D] in a way almost nobody else gets to, I say: “You’re seeing things nobody else has seen!  You may the first person who has ever looked at this part of Mars—you may be the person to find something nobody else has ever discovered.”  So they’re really on the lookout, looking forward to discovering something cool.  And some of them have, and gone on to have amazing careers.  To me that’s super exciting.  I love seeing that happen.

T:  So you’re ahead of me again, ‘cause I was going to ask you about mentoring.  Are these students Astronomy or Planetary Science majors? 

S:   No, not necessarily.  We hire undergrads based on criteria that are really tailored to the job that I know they’re going have to do, which doesn’t necessarily require a science background.  We’ve had Architecture majors, Information Science majors, Aerospace Mechanical Engineering majors, Physics, Geophysics, Geology.  I’m really looking for a specific skill set.  I think I’ve gotten pretty good at finding the right people for the jobs.  If they’re interested in the exploration and science aspects, it’s a bonus for me. So I encourage them to pursue research projects and interests of their own.  I always try to find projects for them that aren’t just production, let them pursue their interests.  We’ve had some Senior theses come through.  It’s fun for me.

In the University Fellows program, as you know, there is a mentorship component, and my undergraduate mentee went on to get a job here.  In the Spring, she’ll be moving up into my lab, and I’m really excited about working with her because she’s fantastic. 

T: You might say to a typical Doctoral student: “What do you expect to be doing when you get out of here?”  But you don’t want to get out of here!

S: Well, I really love my job and I really love working with the people I work with.  One of the reasons I am pursuing a PhD is that I’ve hit a ceiling with the career progression: in this field, you don’t strictly speaking need a PhD, but in many cases it opens more doors.  So that’s my motivation.  I really want a career as a research scientist.  I’ve had the opportunity to dabble in research projects and have one of my own even before entering the program.  I’m looking forward to expanding beyond being in the technical role solely.

Whether I stay here or not, I’m far from those decisions.  Staying here would be just fine. 

T: Has your experience as a University Fellow changed your frame of reference, given you new insights?

The greatest thing I’ve gotten out of the Fellows Program is the opportunity to interact with graduate students in a variety of fields that I wouldn’t normally touch on. And the way the program was designed, with a real focus on interdisciplinary collaborations, it was really fun.  Just seeing what other people are doing in their research, understanding how we could work together even though it seems like very disparate topics, was really great. Far better than compartmentalizing yourself into a supersubspecialty that isolates you from other people.  It’s always better to work across disciplines.  You’re always surprised--it’s amazing what you can do when you work together if you just try. That, I think, was the big perspective shift:  seeing the different ways the different Fellows approached their work.  It was very inspiring

T: What advice would you offer to people just getting into grad school?

It’s very difficult!  Even if you have been doing difficult things in your life, it’s a whole other level of difficulty.  You must know that everyone else in your position is also going through the same things.  It’s okay—you will make it.  Reach out for support wherever you can find it.  The Graduate Center has been super helpful.  I think being a University Fellow helped me get through some of the toughest times in the first year.  That would be my advice:  it’s hard; you will make it; keep in mind the goal; reach out for help and friends.

T: I’m curious: when you were “just” an artist, what media did you work in?

S:  It was painting, sometimes combined with metal or other media, because I did a lot of metal work, too.  Actually my work was inspired by satellite imagery and landscape formations, so it really tied in in a way.  As I was going back to school, I tried to convince people that this wasn’t a complete shift in my thinking but just a continuation of what inspired me already.  It was sometimes landscapes, but rather from an aerial perspective, so I’m used to thinking about terrain in that way: how it was formed, in terms of mathematical modelling, geometries, self-similarities at different landscape scales and so on.  That’s what really inspired me to go back to school.  I had been thinking a lot about these concepts, but I really wanted to get my hands on them for real and not just imagine them.

But imagination helps a lot.

T:  As Einstein said!

S:  Seems like common sense...

Join the exploration at the OSIRIS-REx mission website and NASA's OSIRIS-REx website. There is also an archive of related news stories at UA’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory’s website.  To find out more about the University Fellows Program, visit the Graduate Center's website.