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!

Charity 2.0

Back in June 2015 we created a list of charities worth supporting. As it's always a good time to support organizations that are changing the world for better we're doing it again. 
Abigail Harrison (Aspiring astronaut & scientist, founder and spokesperson for The Mars Generation)

TheMarsGeneration.org which is a nonprofit setup by myself and a team of astronauts, engineers and others. The mission is to excite and educate students and adults about the importance of human space exploration and STEM education to the future of humanity.

The organisation is now in its second year of operation. It is 100% volunteer driven, has provided 10 students with financial need full paid space camp scholarships in 2016 and will do the same for summer of 2017, has over 650 Student Space Ambassadors, over 350 founding members so far and an online following of over 700,000 fans and followers. Last year we reached over 10 million people and we anticipate year two to be even bigger!

Mike Simmons (Founder and CEO of "Astronomers without Borders")

I started Astronomers Without Borders to connect people around the world through our common passion. Now we're doing a lot to advance STEM through astronomy, sharing what those of us have in developed countries with others..

Morgan Rehnberg (PhD student at University of Colorado, works with Cassini to study Saturn’s rings) 

I support the Wikimedia Foundation each year because I can't imagine what I'd do for even a day without Wikipedia. Whether it's finding a quick reference for the mass of a moon or a high-resolution copy of the Hubble deep field, basically all the information I could ever want is a click or two away. It's certainly an organization with its share of faults, but I can't imagine the amount of effort it would take to start over from scratch.

Paul Carr (Space Systems engineer at NASA, podcaster, blogger, investigator)

I think there are many worthy charities. I mentioned one of them in the latest episode (64) of the Unseen Podcast: Doctors Without Borders. As for space or astronomy related charities, I have donated at various times to the SETI Institute, the Planetary Society, and the AAVSO. At the AAVSO, you can adopt the variable star of your choice for $20/year, which is a good way to help them.

OSIRIS REx

OSIRIS-REx mission will meet with asteroid “Bennu” in 2018, collect samples and return back to Earth. What can we learn from this mission and how important it is? What’s the next best object to collect samples from?

Morgan Rehnberg (PhD student at University of Colorado, works with Cassini to study Saturn’s rings)

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Samples from an asteroid like Bennu will help us understand the conditions out of which planets like Earth formed in the early Solar System. With each new exoplanet discovery, we find more evidence that confounds the traditional model of planetary formation, so this is vital information. If I could sample from elsewhere in the Solar System, I’d pick either Meecury or Mars. We need additional samples from cratered bodies in order to refine our dating methods. Today, the ages of pretty much everything are calibrated solely by the rocks returned from the Moon by the Apollo astronauts!


Paul Carr (Space Systems engineer at NASA, podcaster, blogger, investigator)

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OSIRIS-Rex is not the first asteroid sample return. In fact, when it returns to Earth in 2023, it should be the third sample return, with the Japanese Hayabusa and Hayabusa 2 missions ahead of it. Hayabusa only returned a tiny sample from an S-class asteroid, but it was confirmed to be asteroidal in nature. The NEAR mission launched in the mid 1990s was the first asteroid rendezvous mission, but did not return samples. From my perspective, the most important aspect of studying asteroids is to determine if they are ore-bearing, and I’m not clear if sample return does a whole lot better for that purpose than instruments like an X-ray spectrometer (OSIRS-REX is flying one called REXIS), which can measure the elemental composition. My understanding is that the asteroid Bennu was picked as a target because it is a C type asteroid, and may contain some organic material, which would be of great scientific interest. A sample return will of course provide tremendous detail about the material composing the asteroid’s regolith, and I always hope there will be interesting surprises – maybe even water bearing minerals. So far, the closest look we have had to a C type asteroid was in 1999, when NEAR flew by the main belt asteroid Mathilde. What NEAR saw was surprising – two huge craters in comparison to the size of the body. To absorb impacts that large, Mathilde must be quite low density – a sort of spongy texture. It will be interesting to see if Bennu is similar, and its laser altimeter should enable some precise measurements of its gravity field.


Antonio Paris (Astronaut Candidate, Astronomy Professor, Planetary Scientist, Space Science Author)

antonioparis

Asteroid Bennu, like all asteroids, is a “time capsule” loaded with vital information regarding the formation of the Solar System. More importantly, the Osiris-Rex mission to Bennu is centered on studying the surface of the asteroid, which is covered in carbonaceous material. This material is a critical element in organic molecules required for life. It is possible, therefore, that the Osiris-Rex mission could finally unlock the secrets to how life on Earth began, and, more importantly, could provide clues for the search for life elsewhere in the Solar System!