Interview with Morgan Rehnberg

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!

Interview with Nancy Atkinson

Nancy is a science journalist who writes mainly about space exploration and astronomy and is a Senior Editor for Universe Today. She was a host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast from 2009 to 2014, was a part of production team for Astronomy Cast from 2008 to 2015 and worked with the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast where she was project manager from 2009 to 2011. 

Mateusz Macias: Hello Nancy, how are you? Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
Nancy Atkinson: Thank you very much for your interest in my work and in my book!

Mateusz Macias: How did your adventure with astronomy started? What or who was your inspiration?
Nancy Atkinson: I grew up on a farm, in a rural area and so I kind of took for granted that I could always go out and see the stars at night, or see an aurora in the winter skies! So, when I was young, I always enjoyed looking at the stars, but didn't really have anyone to guide me or teach me, and I didn't have a telescope. Only when I got older and lived in a city did I realize how much I missed looking at the night sky, and so then got involved with a local space-related group that promoted space exploration, and as a side benefit, some of them had telescopes. I'll never forget the first time I saw Saturn's rings through a telescope, it just took my breath away! I was always interested in space exploration, and that helped extend my interest into astronomy too.

Mateusz Macias: How did you met with Fraser Cain? What was the story behind you joining Universe Today team?
Nancy Atkinson: I had always wanted to be a writer, but trying to write fiction/novels never really interested me; I loved writing and reading about true events, and with my interest in space, writing about it helped with my wish to share my love of space and tell more people about the wonders of space exploration! I still had a different job, but on the side I started by writing for a few newspapers whenever there was a current space shuttle mission or news from a robotic planetary mission. But then with the rise of the internet, it seemed the best options for writing about space were online. I had been reading Universe Today, and in 2004, Fraser published a note that he was looking for more writers. I sent him an email and he hired me almost immediately!

My first article for UT was a plum assignment. Fraser asked if I’d be interested in interviewing former astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman about his research into using superconducting magnetic technology to protect astronauts from radiation during long-duration spaceflights. Um… let’s see, talk to an astronaut about possibly overcoming one of the biggest hurdles in human spaceflight. Yep, I was all in! While the article generated a lot of interest (and Hoffman ended up using my article in one of his reports for his NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts research) ultimately, after a couple of years, Hoffman and his team realized the technology didn’t pan out.

Link to that post is: http://www.nancyatkinson.com/blog/2014/11/17/10-years-of-keeping-track-of-the-universe-today/#more-467
But that first article started the long relationship I've had with Universe Today and Fraser. He's just been so great to work with, and he' and UT has had a tremendous impact on my life and my career. I eventually was able to quit my other job and focus full time on writing, thanks to Fraser.

Mateusz Macias: What word best describes Fraser as a boss?
Nancy Atkinson: Supportive is the first word that comes to mind. He's always been supportive of any ideas I've had for articles or for doing things with the website, etc. He's also very creative and resourceful, and very business savvy.

Mateusz Macias: What's in store for Universe Today in the near and far future? It's already one of the most popular space and astronomy websites in the world.
Nancy Atkinson: Fraser has been doing his award winning video series (he's won several Parsec Awards) and I think his videos explaining various topics in space and astronomy have been very popular, so he'll probably continue those. I think things are going very well, so there's the old adage of "if it's not broken, don't fix it!" But also, Fraser does like to change things up every once in a while, and I never know what new idea he has up his sleeve! Maybe he'll have some surprises! With writing my book, I had to cut back with how much writing and editing I did for Universe Today, so I'm not as involved as much as I was previously. I'm still quite busy with the book, and also have started writing for Seeker.com, too.

Mateusz Macias: December 20th was the day when your book "Incredible Stories From Space" got published. Was it a dream come true, a coronation of so many years as a journalist?
Nancy Atkinson: Yes, it certainly was a dream come true! While I’ve always had writing a book in the back of my mind, until about a year and a half ago, I really wasn't planning to writing a book, at least not in the near future! Life was just too busy. But then I received a call from Page Street Publishing, a subsidiary of Macmillan. They had an idea for a book about NASA’s robotic missions and wondered if I would consider writing it. To say I was honored is an understatement. I'm very thankful for the opportunity.

Mateusz Macias: How hard was the research for the book? What advice would you give to young aspiring authors, especially ones that would like to cover similiar subject?
Nancy Atkinson: The fun part was being able to interview 37 NASA scientists and engineers, and have them tell me about their careers, their missions and all the fun, behind-the-scenes things that have gone on with their spacecraft - from building the spacecraft to operating it, sometimes millions of miles from Earth. What I found was that these people bring a lot of dedication, enthusiasm, emotion to what they do, and they are very passionate about their jobs. That part was fun!

The research was done by materials I received from JPL, Goddard Spaceflight Center, the Space Telescope Science Institute, Johns Hopkins University, as well as using NASA's various websites and the mission websites to get the exact details. That was not quite as fun as interviewing people, and it was a challenge to try and squeeze as much details into the chapters on each mission without making it overly technical, and trying to put as much of the personalities of the people behind the missions into the book. The most challenging was an extremely tight timeline of doing the interviews and research and then writing up my first draft.

But I was able to weave together the stories of these amazing people into the stories of the missions - from what it was like to take the spacecraft they so delicately built and put it on top of an exploding rocket (!), to the challenges of operating a spacecraft millions of miles away from Earth, to how even scientists tend to anthropomorphize our robots, finding their "human" qualities, just like I (and many other space fans) tend to do.
As far as advice, when you are interviewing people, let them tell their stories and try to let their personalities shine through your writing. That's not always easy though! However, all the people I talked with with absolutely wonderful, and I truly hope I was able to capture and convey their passion and dedication.

Mateusz Macias: Which scientist was the most fun to interview and provided the most valuable data?
Nancy Atkinson: Marc Rayman from the Dawn mission is an amazing person, and perhaps one of the most passionate persons that I’ve ever met. He’s passionate about both space exploration and life in general. He could go on and on about the virtues of space exploration and how this grand adventure of exploration brings us together. During our interview, he nearly had me teary-eyed, because he spoke so eloquently about his mission. He said, that anyone who has looked at the night sky in wonder, or who has wanted to go over the next horizon and see what is beyond is part of the Dawn mission.
“Anyone who has ever felt any of those feelings is a part of our mission,” he said “We are doing this together. And that’s what I think is the most exciting, gratifying, rewarding and profound aspect of exploring the cosmos.” It was also fun to talk with him about the bright regions that have been found on Ceres. When we did the interview, the science team was just beginning to make some conclusions that these were bright salts on the interiors of several craters.

Mateusz Macias: What's the most interesting fact you learned about space exploration in the process of writing the book that you did not know before?
Nancy Atkinson: I knew there was some type of issue with the Huygens spacecraft that went to Titan along with the Cassini mission to Saturn. But I didn't know how serious the problem was, of how close they came to not having it work at all. And I didn't know about the international effort it took to make the spacecraft work. Of course, the spacecraft was millions of miles away from Earth when they figured out what the problems was, so how do you fix a spacecraft that far away? And so I learned about how the engineers for the mission were able to compensate for a problem with the radio communication between Huygens and Cassini by just flying the mission differently. It was true ingenuity and that the Huygens spacecraft worked so well is a true testament to the resourcefulness and creativity of the people who operate these spacecraft.

Mateusz Macias: Book is getting great reviews. Did you expected such a great reception?
Nancy Atkinson: A writer can only hope! When you pour your heart and soul into a project, you hope that people enjoy the finished product, and that your writing resonates with people. I've been especially gratified by the comments from the people I wrote about, with some of them saying I really captured the essence of their mission, or that the book really represents well both the spacecraft and the people behind it. That really means a lot to me!

Mateusz Macias: Now, looking back, would you change something in the book, something you think you might have done better?
Nancy Atkinson: Oh yes. A writer is never done editing and making changes! There was a rather tight timeline in writing the book, so I wished there had been more time in making the final edits. I actually haven't read much of the book since it was published. It was just part of me for the year it took to write and edit it, and want to be able to look at it with fresh eyes at some point!

Mateusz Macias: Did you enjoy attending book signings events? How important is meeting with the readers face to face?
Nancy Atkinson: I really do. Of course its very gratifying to have people show such an interest your book that they actually take time out of their busy lives to come to an event! And of course, I'll talk anyone's ear off about space and astronomy! But its also fun to hear the stories from people about how they got interested in space or astronomy. And I love to hear what parts of the book they liked or even that they didn't like. Feedback is always good! The fun events I do where I get to share pictures from the missions are the best, because the images from space are so intriguing and engaging.

Mateusz Macias: Are there any events planned that our readers would like to know about? Where could we see you?
Nancy Atkinson: I'll be at a Barnes & Noble in St. Cloud, Minnesota on April 8 (this Saturday) and giving talks at a few schools in the Minneapolis area in April, and also at various libraries in Minnesota and Illinois. My big event this year was attending the Tucson (Arizona) Festival of Books, which was really wonderful! I hope to do more events, too, in case anyone is looking for a speaker!

Mateusz Macias: I know it's too early but have you wondered what your next book could be about?
Nancy Atkinson: Well, I'll break the news here with you that my publisher has offered the opportunity for me to write another book! However, this time, they don't have an idea for me, so I have to find a topic on my own. So, I have been giving it some thought, bouncing ideas around, and have contacted a few people about potential ideas. Some of the ideas have not panned out, other ideas I found out are already in the works by other writers, and so I'm still working on figuring out what the topic might be. I'll take any suggestions!

Mateusz Macias: Nancy, thank you again for your time. I wish you all the best with your book and with your work at Universe Today!
Nancy Atkinson: Thanks Mateusz! It was really fun to chat with you!

David Grinspoon joins Astronomy/Finest

Warm welcome to our new panelist: David Grinspoon.

David Grinspoon is an astrobiologist, senior scientist at The Planetary Science Institute, columnist at "Sky and Telescope" and an author of several books. He also performs with his band House Band of the Universe.

Matthew Greenhouse joins the panel

Astronomy/Finest is proud to announce a new panelist: Matthew Greenhouse.

Matthew Greenhouse is an astrophysicist working for over 20 years at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. He is responsible for the science instrument payload on the James Webb Space Telescope.