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  Jessica Sunshine

Jessica Sunshine Interview, Co-investigator, UMD

What is your role on the Stardust-NExT Mission?
I’m responsible for identifying and interpreting the significance of ice components on the surface of comet 9P/Tempel 1, establishing any associations with water vapor in the coma, and comparing these to what we saw with the Deep Impact mission in 2005

This is not the first time you've "gone to a comet." Can you tell us more about what else you've done?
I’ve “gone to” this comet. As part of the Deep Impact science team we carried out the largest scale impact experiment ever! My particular focus is with the spectrometer data collected from the fly-by spacecraft. We studied the pre-impact nucleus and the dust and ice in the ejecta.

Tell me more about the University of Maryland's connection to the mission?
Deep Impact was run by Michael A’Hearn and the University of Maryland so there is a strong link between Stardust-NExT and UMD. On Stardust-NExT Michael will focus on natural outbursts and coma science. The University of Maryland is also archiving the Stardust-NExT data.

Was working in the science field something you have always wanted to do?
No, not really. I was always good at and liked math and science, but I also loved history. I had no specific aspirations.  Actually, I ended up in planetary science completely by accident, really! (See “How did you end up working in space science?” in my Deep Impact “up-close and personal.”)

As a child, who inspired you ?
I've been very fortunate in having a strong and encouraging family. My parents and older brothers always made me feel like I could do anything and education was always viewed as important. That came directly from my grandparents, all of whom were immigrants. They passed on a great sense of intellectual curiosity and a desire to ask questions and seek answers. I've also had a series of wonderful teachers and mentors over the years, from math teachers who conveyed their infectious enthusiasm for logic, to professors whose excitement about their research was palpable (one of whom, Pete Schultz, is on the Stardust-NExT science team).

Is re-exploring Tempel 1 exciting for you?
Re-exploring Tempel 1 is VERY exciting. Emotionally, I really think it will be like visiting with an old out-of-town friend you haven’t seen in a long time. Scientifically, this is very unique opportunity: seeing a comet again after one orbit will provide many new constraints for our continuing efforts to understand how comets work.

What will be the most exciting part about this mission for you?
It will, of course, be very rewarding to see the crater “we” made. But I’m also very interested to see what has changed on the surface of Tempel 1 since last time. Do we see erosion, new or extended flows, and/or different ice patches, and if so where?

There are so many comets out there. How do you pick?
In this case, it was easy. Stardust provided a unique opportunity to get a spacecraft to a comet we’ve already been to, so Tempel 1 was the target by definition. Normally, we choose comets that we can reach with reasonable [amounts of] fuel, that have well-known orbits so we can find them (not Boethin!). And then, if we have choices, we consider size and activity (how much outgassing), depending on the specific mission requirements.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
My favorite part of research is discovering new things in data. Sometimes these are truly new discoveries, but often it’s just seeing things in a different light or making new connections that hadn’t been seen before. I also really enjoy working in groups and I seek this out even in my non-mission research. I always get more out of talking with others who have complementary backgrounds and strengths than I ever could by working alone.

What are some of the challenges you have encountered in your career?
Like most, funding and life balance are always problematic. Thanks to a supportive family, with a husband who has the same issues, I’ve been able to manage both. But, my career path hasn’t been typical (I spent 12 years in industry after graduate school). Sometimes this is considered a plus, but not everyone sees it that way.

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“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