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Steve Chesley, Co-Investigator, JPL (continued)

What is especially exciting or intriguing to you about the SD-NExT mission?  
It is so exciting to be able to reuse a spacecraft. After the Stardust Mission, the spacecraft didn’t really have any place to go. It was a bit of really good luck that there was just enough fuel, and only enough fuel, to get Stardust to fly by Tempel 1. We wanted to revisit that comet in particular because we wanted to see the changes from one perihelion passage to the next. Nobody’s ever imaged a comet nucleus, of course, in successive perihelion passages to see just exactly how great the surface changes might be.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Who inspired you?
When I was in grade school, the JPL Mars Viking Program was the highlight of the day. I spent a lot of time learning about the Mars Viking and looking at the pictures in the magazines and so forth. I knew about JPL from a young age.

I went on to college, and then flew in the Air Force, and came back to graduate school after the Air Force when I started studying orbital mechanics. That naturally led to the study of orbits of small bodies, and in my case, asteroids and comets. I really liked to work on these asteroids and comet orbits because each is a little different.

What subjects were you interested in as a young student?
I was definitely drawn to science, and I did well enough in mathematics. I wish I had worked harder on reading and writing because, as it turns out, that’s the most important part of many aspects of my work as a scientist. Most scientists are pretty naturally gifted at the math and the science so they don’t have to work so hard at it. But reading and writing – language arts – is one area where many of us could have paid more attention.

At what point did you determine that you would pursue a career in space science? Or engineering? (Talk about path that led you to this field)
All of my college work led to aerospace engineering degrees. It wasn’t until I left graduate school with a PhD in engineering and I started working on orbits of asteroids that I became very deeply involved in the scientific side of these questions. The field of orbital mechanics is very often associated with engineering departments because it’s closely related to managing artificial satellites and navigating spacecraft in the interplanetary system. That’s where I got my training and it was after school was finished that I started switching over to being more of a scientist and active in scientific investigation.

What was your favorite book as a child and why?
Dune [by Frank Herbert], I liked that a lot when I was a kid, that whole series. I read a lot, particularly science fiction – I liked those worlds – and that was one I found particularly engaging.

What advice would you give to aspiring engineers or scientists?  If there was one thing you wanted the younger generation to understand about space exploration, what would it be?
For a while there was an idea that space exploration was kind of “all done.” All the giant planets had been seen close up, and Mars had been driven around on – what was left to see? Even I worried about that a bit when I was a kid.

But there’s still so much to be learned through space exploration. There are open, unanswered questions about the history of the solar system: How did it get to be the way it is? Is it like other solar systems in our intergalactic neighborhood? Asteroids and comets have the history of our solar system encoded within them. There are hundreds of thousands of asteroids and hundreds and hundreds of comets and in each one there is a distinct story that contributes to the larger story of our solar system. These questions can be answered through space exploration.

What are your leisure time activities?
I like to run, and I’m working to get ready for the Chicago Marathon. I ran four marathons when I was back in the Air Force. Mountain biking, hiking, camping, and the occasional rock climbing – I enjoy all of those outside activities.

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Exploring Comets

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Meet The Science Team


“When we see comets up in the sky they're really spectacular. But unless you get close to a comet, you can't really figure out what's going on.”

-Joe Veverka