Research

“I know nothing of any certainty, but the sight of stars makes me dream.” —Vincent van Gogh

My current life involves blasting spacerocks with a 1 megawatt radar setup (20 terawatts if you count gain) at Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico with the Solar System Studies/Planetary Radar Group.  We determine shapes, sizes, spin rates, orbits, and surface properties of near-Earth asteroids with the planetary radar system, and take images of space rocks when they’re close enough.  I crunch data and observe all night long a few times a month.  Sometimes I write press releases.  We have the most sensitive radio telescope in the world at our disposal for characterizing asteroids, comparable only to spacecraft data.  It’s a great job.

Spring 2012 I was employed at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, CA, working on multiple asteroid systems, mission proposals, and supervising undergraduate students.  We had telescope time on the Nickel 40″ at Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, as well as NASA’s IRTF on Mauna Kea; I presented results of the project at the Asteroids, Comets, Meteors meeting in Niigata, Japan in May 2012.

From July until September 2011 I worked as an intern at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA, in Tokyo, Japan in the Aerodynamic Research and Development Directorate.  I developed methods to better characterize supercooled water temperature distributions, in addition to teaching graduate students how to read technical papers and give effective presentations.

In June 2011 I used a camera from the MIT Planetary Astronomy Laboratory to record an occultation of Pluto from NASA JPL’s Table Mountain Observatory in Wrightwood, California.  I successfully observed Pluto’s moon, Charon, passing in front of a star, which will lead to improved orbital information about Pluto’s largest orbital companion.

I finished my master’s in Earth & Planetary Sciences from MIT in June 2011. My thesis advisor was Linda Elkins-Tanton, who supervised my project on terrestrial planet formation and thermodynamics, including magma ocean solidification, mineralogy, and isotopes of rare-Earth elements. You can read the final draft of my thesis here.

Summer 2009 I worked as a SpaceGrant intern at JPL under Paul Weissman, studying the rotation rate of near-Earth asteroid (4015) Wilson-Harrington as well as main belt asteroid (21) Lutetia. We recovered the orbits of a half-dozen near-Earth objects as well as other fast-moving near-Earth asteroids in August at JPL’s Table Mountain Observatory.  During this time, I documented some of my wranglings of IRAF, an astronomical image processing software package.

I participated in JPL’s Planetary Science Summer School in June through August of 2008 as a proposal/project manager for a Trojan/Centaur reconnaissance and impactor mission.  Over the course of several telecons and a week-long intensive set of sessions with JPL’s Team X our group of 18 designed a New Frontiers mission proposal to study some of the more primitive small outer solar system bodies.  Our mission proposal not only came in under budget, but our review board of NASA scientists and engineers gave it the highest rating possible.  I also helped write a white paper [PDF] on Trojan asteroid science for the 2013-2022 Planetary Decadal Survey.

For the academic year of 2007-2008 I worked for Richard Binzel on determining the rotation rates of Nix and Hydra, two newly discovered moons of Pluto using one of the 6.5-meter Magellan telescopes at Las Campanas Observatory. I also helped characterize Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) by taking infrared spectra with the IRTF on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

I graduated in June 2007 with a B.A. in astrophysics from Wellesley College, where I worked with Richard French on analyzing spectra of Saturn’s rings and observed Koronis family asteroids for Stephen Slivan.

During the summer of 2006 I was a Student Undergraduate Laboratory Intern at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, working for Chi “Teddy” C. Cheung in the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics.  My research on X-shape extragalactic radio sources and their host galaxy shapes was published in the Department of Energy’s Journal of Undergraduate Research [PDF], and I was able to present a poster on my work at AAS in Seattle as well as AAAS in San Francisco in 2007. As the SULI program has very complex requirements for paper formatting, Alexandra (Sasha) Rahlin and I wrote a LaTeX template that satisfies the DOE SULI program’s formatting standards.

In 2004 I became involved with a project to track sailboats in realtime on the Charles River.  Our group, RiverRat, received an MIT/Microsoft iCampus grant to develop our prototypes using GPS and radio hardware installed in waterproof containers on MIT’s fleet of Tech dinghies.  We called our project RiverRat.  Part of the project’s funding was contingent on our team’s taking a course on project and product management taught by MIT and Microsoft representatives, where we worked on presentation and business planning skills.

Astronomical Links

Conferences and workshops attended:

  • DPS 2013: Denver, CO (October, 2013)
  • Target NEO II/Small Bodies Assessment Group workshops: Washington, DC (July, 2013)
  • LPSC 2013: The Woodlands, TX (March 2013)
  • ACM 2012: Niigata-shi, Niigata-ken, Japan (May 2012)
  • Next-generation Suborbital Researchers Conference 2012: Palo Alto, CA (February 2012)
  • LPSC 2011: The Woodlands, TX (March 2011)
  • DPS 2008: Ithaca, NY (October 2008)
  • JPL Planetary Science Summer School: Pasadena, CA (August 2008)
  • ACM 2008: Baltimore, MD (July 2008)
  • DPS 2007: Orlando, FL (October 2007)
  • AAAS 2007: San Francisco, CA (February 2007)
  • AAS 2007: Seattle, WA (January 2007)

One thought on “Research

  1. Hi Sondy,
    Really enjoy your talks on Universe Today. It is always refreshing to find pursuits that do not have immediate fame and profit as their objectives. Astronomy has some of
    these attributes. Earning a living is not easy in our country now, especially making enough to live. Finding a career that has meaning and has some joy is not easy.
    Finding near Earth asteroids is very important and hopefully finding a way to deflect them is necessary to avoid a damaging impact.
    The Nasa budget and efforts seem to be falling short in this regard. Hopefully the rest of the World will contribute to this effort.
    I hope you can continue with this effort and help spread the word about its importance for our survival.

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