Spotlight on Alumni

Elena Adams

AadamsElena Adams was still in high school when she discovered the stars. She attended astronomy camp, which led her to pursue the interest as an undergraduate. However, she quickly realized that she was more interested in our planetary system than cosmology. And it was here at Climate & Space that she found her inspiration. 

“My time at Michigan was spent doing research with Professor Sushil Atreya, who was my PhD advisor,” she says. “Sushil has a breadth of planetary science experience, and is always working on the ‘next’ planetary mission.” Elena realized that she was primarily interested in the engineering and technology aspects of the space missions. She became involved with the Juno mission and ultimately worked on the JPL Microwave Radiometer team as a postdoc. “Sushil really prepared me for the world of proposals that NASA and the science teams live in.”

Elena also cites her work with Professor Bill Kuhn on radiative transfer modeling. “He had an amazing ability to explain incredibly complex problems very simply.” But it was former CLaSP Professor Thomas Zurbuchen who encouraged Adams to pursue “something different than just straight up academia, and that really changed the course of my career.”

Elena is currently a space systems engineer at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, where she recently worked as Payload Systems Engineer for the Solar Probe Plus mission. “The Solar Probe Plus is a mission to ‘touch the Sun’ and gets within 10 Solar Radii of the surface of the Sun over the course of 24 flybys. It’s an incredibly complex technological mission.” The probe is equipped with a Thermal Protection System that allows the spacecraft to maintain 25-30 degrees C, while the temperature at the front of the protective shield exceeds 1400 degrees C. Due to launch in 2018, the Solar Probe Plus will gather new data on solar activity and hopefully improve our ability to forecast major space-weather events.

Adams is also the Principal Investigator for the Planetary Object Geophysical Observer (POGO) mission that uses a small hopping lander to roam the surface of surface of asteroids, comets, and small moons. “Its primary purpose,” says Elena, “is to figure out what these small planetary bodies are made out of, and how hard their surfaces are. The answer would tell us how these bodies were formed, what processes changed their surfaces, and it would help us understand how our solar system originated and evolved.”

And if all of that weren’t enough, Elena also found time to work on a team charged with reviewing the current NOAA space flight architecture. “NOAA currently flies satellites in GEO (Geostationary) orbits (GOES), LEO (Low Earth orbit) (JPSS), and at the solar Lagrange Point (L1) (DSCOVR). We are looking to see whether NOAA should re-examine this approach going into 2030-2050, and recommend the path forward.”

When asked what might the next step in her career, Elena says “I already have my dream job.” But she’s got her sights set on a mission/systems engineer for a NASA planetary mission. “I really enjoy the engineering and thinking broadly about the future of space exploration, and understanding what we need to make some of the most technologically challenging missions happen.”