Emily LakdawallaApr 20, 2011

Outside scientists being invited in to Cassini mission

NASA announced last week the start of a Participating Scientist program for Cassini, which is big news, for outer planets scientists anyway. Lots and lots of other missions have participating scientist programs, from big missions like Mars Science Laboratory to little ones like Dawn; but this is the first time for Cassini, which is kind of surprising given that it's been almost seven years since it arrived at Saturn.

To explain why this is significant, let's consider who already works on Cassini. Cassini is operated out of JPL, but the science is conducted by a widespread, international team of more than two hundred scientists. This team is coordinated from JPL by the Project Scientist, Linda Spilker (a frequent guest on Planetary Radio), and her Deputy Project Scientist, Amanda Hendrix. The science team is split into sub-teams for each of the twelve science instruments, each led by a Principal Investigator or a Team Leader (the title depends on whether the instrument was built by another institution and contributed to Cassini or whether the instrument was built by JPL as a "facility instrument" for the mission). There are also several Interdisciplinary Scientists, parallel to PIs and Team Leaders, who guide lines of inquiry that require data from multiple instruments. Each Principal Investigator or Team Leader heads a group of around 10 or 20 scientists who are called either Co-Investigators or Team Members. Many of these people have graduate students or postdocs working for them.

Cassini-Huygens at Saturn
Cassini-Huygens at Saturn Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech

If you look at that team list I linked to, it's full of lots of recognizeable names, outer planets scientists who have been working in the field for a long time; most of them have been part of the Cassini team since before its 1997 launch. In the years since then, they've had lots of graduate students and postdocs who've developed as scientists working on Cassini data; sometimes these people are called team "affiliates," but they're not seen as a formal part of the Cassini mission. There's also a lot of notable outer planets scientists who weren't ever part of the Cassini science team. A lot of these people have been able to do some work with Cassini data through something called the Cassini Data Analysis Program, which awards grants to scientists (roughly 20 grants annually) to perform research on Cassini data that's been released to the Planetary Data System. But there hasn't really been a way for these outsiders to break in to the Cassini science team and participate in the ongoing mission, to be there as the teams develop and justify their plans for Cassini's future activities.

This is a problem, because Cassini is the only thing going in outer planets exploration right now. If you're a Mars scientist and are an outsider to one mission, there's lots of other missions you can apply to get involved with. (I'm not saying it's easy to get a position on a Mars mission, just that there are more opportunities out there.) If you're an astronomer, there's lots of grant programs on lots of different telescopes. But let's say you're a young outer planets scientist with aspirations to having a key role on the science team in the Europa mission, or on that Uranus orbiter that showed up as a suggestion in the Decadal Survey. How are we going to develop the future leaders of scientific missions to the outer solar system, if the only outer planets mission that's actively producing science data doesn't ever open up new seats at the table for scientists who haven't been involved before?

That's why the announcement of a new Participating Scientist program on Cassini is such a big deal. For the first time, NASA is specifically encouraging "people who have not previously participated in Cassini or other missions" to apply to join the mission. They're also looking for people whose research "complements or extends the existing investigations and expertise of the science team" while addressing "both goals and the applicable mission-level science objectives of the Cassini Solstice Mission." NASA is not specifically seeking young researchers; that would be age discrimination. But simple demographics dictate that the Participating Scientists will, on average, be younger than the current science team. The announcement says that they expect to select roughly 10 Participating Scientists per year; since Cassini is going to last until 2017, that's a lot of fresh faces that will be brought into the mission. The outer planets community has been clamoring for this change; hopefully it will spur a burst of exciting new results from an already exciting mission!

A special note to anyone reading this who might be considering applying for one of these plum positions, especially if you're younger: I've been to several early career scientist workshops and one of the pieces of advice that I've heard over and over is: use the language from the solicitation in your proposal. They want to know how "the proposal meets both goals and the applicable mission-level science objectives of the Cassini Solstice mission;" your proposal better tell them that "This proposal meets both goals and the applicable mission-level science objectives of the Cassini Solstice mission including..." and state some goals and objectives and explain how you'll meet them. I'm an advocate for people writing creatively and with passion. However, grant proposals are not a place for that.

So, have at it, outsider outer planets scientists! Your deadline is June 10 for the NOIs and July 8 for the proposals.

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