Morgan is a Director of Scientific Presentation at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History in Forth Worth, TX. He received his PhD in astrophysics and planetary science from the University of Colorado in 2017. Morgan is mostly known from his work on Saturn and it’s rings using data gathered by Cassini spacecraft. He’s a frequent guest on Fraser Cain’s YouTube series “Weekly Space Hangouts” and a writer for popular series “SciShow Space”. Lately Morgan is involved in a project called “Chart Your World” (https://chartyourworld.org). It aims to take the most interesting and important datasets and visualize them in a way that’s easy to understand and easy to share.
Mateusz Macias: Hello Morgan, thank you for sharing your time and doing this interview with me.
Morgan Rehnberg: Hi Mateusz, it’s great to talk to you!
Mateusz Macias: I’ll usually ask my panelists how did theirs adventure with astronomy started. Let’s keep up the tradition. How did your fascination with astronomy started and who or what inspired you?
Morgan Rehnberg: Honestly, I never had a particular fascination with astronomy growing up. In fact, when I went to college, my intention was to become a high school chemistry teacher! That quickly turned into physics, but it’s really only an accident of having an astronomer as a faculty adviser that turned me onto the field.
Mateusz Macias: We all know you mostly from your work on Saturn and it’s rings. Cassini’s mission is about to end soon, where do you see yourself when Cassini end it’s life plunging into Saturn?
Morgan Rehnberg: Like the rest of the world, I’ll be on the edge of my seat, waiting for those last amazing images that Cassini will return. Cassini’s Grand Finale, currently underway, promises to bring us some critical information for understanding the rings
Mateusz Macias: What data can Cassini stream back to Earth in it’s last days? On what data researchers want to focus on?
Morgan Rehnberg: I don’t have any connection to the planning of the Grand Finale, but my understanding is that the spacecraft will return its final images several hours before the expected end and then continuously transmit other forms of data during the plunge into Saturn. From the perspective of a researcher on planetary rings, the Grand Finale is already revealing new information. We learned during Cassini’s first trip between the planet and its rings that the region is far more empty than we might have imagined. This is actually good news, because it will allow the spacecraft the freedom to maneuver during upcoming trips
Mateusz Macias: Taking all these years into consideration, what were Cassini’s biggest achievements?
Morgan Rehnberg: I think the biggest discoveries made by the mission are with respect to Saturn’s moons. Landing the Huygens probe on the surface of Titan was a tremendous achievement. Our overall understanding of Titan has improved dramatically and it must now be considered among the Solar System’s most intriguing locations. After all, it’s the only place outside of Earth to have liquid on its surface! Combine that with its thick atmosphere, and we can think of Titan in many ways as another terrestrial planet. Of course, the discovery of plumes emanating from Enceladus is another major accomplishment and one that is just as important when looking for places that resemble Earth. Titan may have surface liquid, but methane and ethane are more or less toxic to life as we know it. Enceladus has liquid water, essentially the only thing all life on Earth has in common! From the perspective of planetary rings, the fact that a moon is creating one of the planet’s largest rings is also really fascinating
Mateusz Macias: Will we see you working through the data of another NASA mission? What could be the next step for you after Cassini and Saturn?
Morgan Rehnberg: Having recently defended my PhD, I’m excited to be taking on the next stage of my career, but that won’t be focused on research. Starting in July, I’ll be working as the Director for Scientific Presentation at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. One of my long-running interests is in how to use all our amazing modern technology to bring people closer to science and I’m really looking forward to getting to pursue that full-time. Of course, I’d never rule out getting the chance to work on another NASA mission. Maybe when we go to Uranus…
Mateusz Macias: If you had the chance to choose a mission you could be working on, which present or future mission would you pick?
Morgan Rehnberg: It’s outside my area of expertise, but I’m really fascinated with the upcoming Lucy mission. This spacecraft will visit a number of Trojan asteroids, a population which shares its orbit with Jupiter. We think Jupiter might have migrated to its present location early in the Solar System’s history and, if so, it probably brought the Trojans along for the ride. The Trojans are probably as numerous as the members of the main asteroid belt, so this is really an untaped region for exploration.
Mateusz Macias: If we send another mission to Saturn, what instruments should we have at our disposal? What would you like to research next time Cassini-type spacecraft enters Saturn’s orbit?
Morgan Rehnberg: I’m not sure I would send another Cassini-type spacecraft to Saturn. The mission has provided a remarkable overview of the entire system and I think we’d be best off investing in smaller, more targeted missions to explore some of the things Cassini has revealed. People have been kicking around the idea of an airship or a boat for the atmosphere of Titan, for example. That would help us understand surface conditions in a way we’ll never be able to from space. A lander in the vicinity of the Enceladus plumes would be able to provide similar context. With respect to the rings, Cassini has revealed that they are far more dynamic on small scales than we’d previously imagined. Now that we understand better where the safe regions of the system are, I’d like to be able to get closer and take pictures that help us see some of the rings’ small structures directly.
Mateusz Macias: Let’s leave Saturn for now. You’re a writer for YouTube’s SciShow Space. How did that part of your life started?
Morgan Rehnberg: SciShow is one of the best producers of science content available online today. It’s no surprise that more and more people are consuming their videos and that has enabled them to keep expanding what they offer. I had heard that they were looking for some additional writers for SciShow Space and just had to get in touch. I work with them on a freelance basis and it’s been quite the education!
Mateusz Macias: You’re also an active participant in Weekly Space Hangouts hosted by Fraser Cain. What’s the best part in sharing your knowledge with people over the internet?
Morgan Rehnberg: It’s great to see how passionate people are about understanding the Universe. When you’re deep in a research project, it can be very easy to lose sight of why what you’re doing matters. Engaging with nonscientists is always really energizing for me.
Mateusz Macias: Have you ever wondered about writing a book? Sharing fascinating facts about our Solar System comes with ease to you.
Morgan Rehnberg: I’d love to write a book, but that’s a big commitment! I also have a lot of ideas that aren’t well connected to each other right now. Once I start to fit those into a larger picture, I’ll definitely be thinking about whether a book is the right outlet for it all.
Mateusz Macias: When you’re not working on Cassini data or sharing your knowledge on social media – what do you do in your spare time?
Morgan Rehnberg: Lately, I’ve been working on a project called Chart Your World that has really pulled me in. The recent election in the US and other elections around the world have highlighted the need for our societal conversations to include more specific facts. The governments of the world produce a tremendous amount of data, but its rarely very accessible to the average citizen. Chart Your World aims to take the most interesting and important datasets and visualize them in a way that’s easy to understand and easy to share. I’ve got a website up at https://chartyourworld.org and the Twitter account @ChartYourWorld. Now that my dissertation is complete, I’m looking forward to devoting more time to this project.
Mateusz Macias: Great initiative, are there also astronomy related datasets?
Morgan Rehnberg: Nope, this is focused entirely on things here on Earth!
Mateusz Macias: Where could someone meet you for a chat about astronomy and space? Are you giving talks in the near future?
Morgan Rehnberg: I’m looking forward to getting many more opportunities to meet people in my new job at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. Now that I’ll no longer be a student, I’m also hoping to get out to many more science-themed events around the US!
Mateusz Macias: Any plans of visiting Europe?
Morgan Rehnberg: I’ve been a few times in recent years, but always for vacation! Hopefully work will take me there even more often…
Mateusz Macias: Morgan thank you again for your time, it’s been a blast. Hope to do that again in the future.
Morgan Rehnberg: Thanks for having me and I hope for the same!