18 June 2009
At school, I was always taking out books about planets and space shuttles. I went on to do a degree in geology at Royal Holloway, which included a course in planetary geology, and I followed this with a PhD atUniversity College London that involved two areas of study: looking at the geological history of lunar meteorites and studying lunar remote sensing compositional data from the UK-built D-CIXS space probe.
D-CIXS flew to the Moon on the European Space Agency SMART-1 mission between 2003-2006. I am now involved in India’s first planetary exploration venture to the Moon, Chandrayaan-1. It launched in October last year and is orbiting the Moon collecting data at the moment.
The Moon is a rocky silicate planet that is essentially similar to the Earth, but the lack of water on the Moon makes it a lot simpler body to understand. The Apollo astronauts brought back rocks from the Moon, and the meteorites I work on are bits of rock that have been blasted off the Moon and collected here on Earth. These meteorites are important as they reveal new information about the Moon’s past from areas that astronauts haven’t gone to. They also give us insight into early planetary processes on the Earth.
There’s a good online guide to lunar meteorites at Washington University’s website, and the photo here is a sample I’m working on called North West Africa 4472. It’s a fused lunar soil, made up of hundreds of fragments of lunar rock from a range of volcanoes and impacts. As you can see the Moon isn’t all boring grey!
I finished my PhD in 2007 and become a Post Doctoral Research Assistant at Birkbeck University of London. Birkbeck is a great because it offers evening and distance learning. The students are typically ‘mature’ – from mid 20s upwards – and come from all walks of life.
I have always had lots of female colleagues in planetary science. The only male-dominated meetings I go to are mission meetings, where you get a lot of male engineers and software engineers.
Last year I applied to be an astronaut. All the Apollo missions have been carried out by test pilots with one exception - Apollo 17, the last Apollo mission, had a geologist on board. So I took inspiration from that. There were 822 applicants from the UK alone and although I didn’t make it through the selection the great news is that we have a UK astronaut now – Major Tim Peake - and there is an Italian woman, Samantha Cristoforetti. There are plenty of female astronauts in the US NASA astronaut corp as well.
Space exploration has huge scientific benefits and lots of technological offshoots. We may yet have lots of British astronauts. These are exciting times!
Dr Katherine Joy is Post Doctoral Research Assistant at Birkbeck University of London. She is a member of the Royal Astronomical Society, the UK Planetary Forum and the Meteoritical Society. She works closely with the Natural History Museum, and is funded by the Leverhulme Trust on a grant held by Dr. Ian Crawford.