10 women whose passion for science is out of this world

15 Nov 2016

Image: AstroStar/Shutterstock

With no comprehensible knowledge of how big the universe is, or even if there is only one, there are endless possibilities to discover about space. So who’s at the top of their game when it comes to astronomical scientific breakthroughs?

We’re continuing our Science 50 with ten astronomical women, who are making huge advancements in the field of astronomy, rocket science and space.

Wendy Freedman

Wendy Freedman has had a significant impact on modern astronomy, leading the construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) project in Chile, one of the strongest such devices in the world. Elsewhere, her studies of Hubble Telescope’s range – which will ultimately be dwarfed by GMT when it’s completed – has led to advances in observational cosmology. Her other fields of interest are the stellar populations of galaxies, the evolution of galaxies, and the initial mass function.

Currently professor of astronomy and astrophysics at University of Chicago, Freedman recently won the 2016 Dannie Heineman prize for astrophysics. She was also awarded the 2016 Women in Space Science Award earlier this year.

Nandini Harinath

Nandini Harinath has been an active member of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for two decades, working across 14 missions to date. Serving as the deputy operations director of ISRO’s successful and remarkably cost-effective Mars Orbiter Mission, Harinath has been a vocal advocate for female inclusion in her industry. At the ‘India Today Woman Summit 2015’, she discussed sexism in the science industry.

The rocket scientist designs and develops satellites for ISRO. She has numerous publications and has received a multitude of awards and recognitions, including the ‘India Today Woman in Science Award 2015’.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a Northern Irish astrophysicist, best known for her significant involvement in the discovery of pulsars (pulsating stars) while she was a PhD student at Cambridge University.

As a keynote speaker at Inspirefest 2015, Bell Burnell treated an enraptured audience to a riveting account of her work with pulsars and the media storm – and rampant sexism – that followed the discovery, and her view on what is widely considered a Nobel prize snub.

Last year, Bell Burnell received two accolades in recognition of her work: an honorary degree from Dublin City University and the Royal Society’s Royal Medal.

Lucy Rogers

Dr Lucy Rogers, author of It’s Only Rocket Science, has an interesting CV. With a background in engineering, an interest in space debris dragged her into the realms of rocket science.

In an Inspirefest 2015 keynote, Rogers spoke about her surprising career path, and warned of the perils of space debris, giving a glimpse into her work calculating the probability of spacecraft colliding with debris in their orbital paths.

Not neglecting her love of robotics (and robot dinosaurs), Rogers was earlier this year named as one of the judges on the BBC 2 reboot of Robot Wars.

Norah Patten

Norah Patten is a department chair at the International Space University, and a self-described space enthusiast. With a doctorate in aeronautical engineering and a lifelong love of space, Patten has a CV peppered with space-related achievements.

The former communications and outreach manager at the Irish Centre for Composites Research (IComp), University of Limerick, Patten was part of the team behind a research project looking at materials designed to make space less cluttered with junk.

During her tenure at IComp, Patten was also instrumental in getting an Irish secondary school experiment onto the International Space Station for the first time.

Susan McKenna-Lawlor

Astrophysicist and founder of Space Technology Ireland, Susan McKenna-Lawlor has had a busy few years.

McKenna-Lawlor has been involved in projects run by all of the world’s major space agencies, but the most notable in recent years has been her work with the European Space Agency (ESA) on the recently completed Rosetta mission.

It was McKenna-Lawlor’s team’s work on the Philae lander that enabled Rosetta to communicate with Earth once the lander reawakened.

McKenna-Lawlor was a keynote speaker at Inspirefest 2015. Here, during a panel discussion, she announced her intentions to launch Ireland’s first space mission, which was later named Cumar.

Joy Crisp

Crisp is a planetary geologist specialising in Mars geology. She is especially noted for her work on NASA missions to Mars, including the Mars Exploration Rovers and Mars Science Laboratory. She is the deputy project scientist for the MSL Curiosity Rover mission. She has been a researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory since 1989 and a principal scientist since 2004.

Joy Crisp

Joy Crisp. Image: NASA

Born in Colorado Springs, she earned a bachelor’s degree in geology from Carleton College and both a Master’s and a PhD from Princeton University. She was also a postdoctoral researcher at UCLA. At NASA, her task is to report to NASA headquarters about the mission’s ability to meet its scientific objectives.

Nicole Stott

Stott retired in 2015 after 27 years of working at NASA, where she served as a flight engineer on ISS Expedition 20 and Expedition 21. She was also a mission specialist on STS-128 and STS-133.

Nicole Stott

Nicole Stott. Image: NASA

Born in Albany, New York, Stott graduated with a science degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and began her career in 1987 as a structural design engineer with Pratt & Whitney. A year later, she joined NASA at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, where she worked on engineering projects around the Space Shuttle. She was selected for astronaut candidate training in 2000.

In 2009, Stott and her Expedition 21 crew mate, Jeff Williams, participated in the first NASA Tweetup in space.

Emily Levesque

Emily Levesque has developed into one astronomy’s ‘massive stars’, as one of the world’s leading authorities on galaxy formation and how massive stars play a part in that.

As an assistant professor in the University of Washington’s astronomy department, Levesque has said her aim is to improve our overall understanding of massive stars, both locally and in the early universe, so that we can effectively use them as cosmological tools.

Emily Levesque (left) receiving her Annie Jump Cannon award from the American Astronomical Society. Image: AAS/Joson Images

Emily Levesque (left) receiving her Annie Jump Cannon award from the American Astronomical Society. Image: AAS/Joson Images

In 2014, she was awarded a prestigious prize by the American Astronomical Society for her innovative work using gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) to explore fundamental questions of stellar astrophysics and cosmology.

Sara Seager

Toronto-born astronomer and planetary scientist Sara Seager has literally written the book on our understanding of the extrasolar planets. Described by NASA as an “astronomical Indiana Jones”, much of the work Seager has undertaken throughout her career has been on answering the question of whether Earth is alone in the universe.

 Sara Seager

Sara Seager. Image: Justin Knight

Having been cited as one of the most important people in astronomy today by magazines like Time, Popular Science and Nature, Seager has her own equation – the Seager equation – that estimates the number of habitable planets in the galaxy.

She recently wrote a piece on the implications on the discovery of our closest exoplanet, Proxima b.