An Interview with Sami Asmar
Meet Dawn Team Member, Sami AsmarThe following interview took place in Pasadena, California on March 26, 2010, between Sami Asmar, member of the Dawn team at JPL, and Education and Public Outreach team members Whitney Cobb (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning—McREL) and Education and Public Outreach Manger, Joe Wise.
WC: How long have you been working on the Gravity Science Team? When did it originate ?
SA: It actually originated with the first Deep Space mission, but it was for a different purpose. At first, the DSN helped navigate the spacecraft and the navigation team needed an estimate of the mass of the planet in order to guide the spacecraft around it safely. Because if you're off one direction, you miss it altogether, and if you're off in the opposite direction, you could crash into it. In order to perform orbit insertion, they need the gravity measurement—just the bulk mass and density.
This, in turn, motivated the development of initial measurements of gravity for navigation, and then it picked up from there because of the obvious science. As the technology developed, the missions evolved from a simple flyby, to an orbiter, to a lander, to probes and rovers, and maybe sample returns in the future. The evolution of planetary exploration always ends up needing better and better knowledge of the gravity and also ends up benefiting the development of gravity science in some way.
WC: You mentioned you were part of a multi-mission team- can you tell us a little bit about that?
SA: At JPL we're organized in sections and groups. There's a group that I happen to manage called the Radio Science Systems group. Gravity science is a branch of Radio Science; it's a radio science technique because it utilizes the radio signals to obtain scientific measurements. So, the radio science group is really the hub of all gravity science and other radio science experiments, probably in the world. It's less expensive and more efficient that way. Instead of building an infrastructure for each mission that uses radio science, we have one group that has expertise and infrastructure to do this work for any mission. So, our tools and techniques have been applied historically for many missions and target bodies, and will be in the future as well.
WC: What subjects were you interested in as a young student?
SA: I actually knew in the back of my mind that I loved science and chances were I was going to specialize in physics. But what excited me as a kid was more of a multidisciplinary thing—I liked history a lot, I liked literature and poetry and music. So that's what I always dabbled with and was excited about. I don't know if it's partly the family or cultural, but I was told, and others around me were told, "You can have fun with that stuff, but when it comes down to eventually declaring a major, you want something that can get you a real job. You want to become an engineer or something with a salary. " I did enjoy science and math—especially geometry—as a kid, and I took that for granted and went down that path and it happened. I was excited about a number of subjects that I could have easily gone into.
WC: At what point did you determine that you would pursue a career in space science or engineering? It sounds like pretty early on.
SA: I would say more pure science then space science. In fact, space science was not in the picture, because it seemed unachievable.
WC: What did you end up majoring in?
WC: How did that lead you to space science?
SA: It turns out that everything we do is just physics—applied physics. You can put any label on it. We joked in college with our chemistry-major friends that chemistry is just applied physics.
You ended up with a physics degree, where did you go from there?
SA: My undergraduate college was in the neighborhood. As a result of that, I ended up getting a part-time academic job at JPL. That’s when I discovered space physics and planetary science. I decided, “This is it.” This just made so much sense to me and went to graduate school to pursue it further. The other options for the industry were defense and aerospace, and those take you directions that were not that exciting to me. This just clicked, and practically by coincidence. I’m not from the area, but choosing a college that happened to be a few miles away and having an opportunity to get a part-time job—one thing led to another.
Yet-to-be-achieved life goal?
SA: I'm satisfied with how life has turned out—I can't complain. I still have a short list of things I'd still like to accomplish in science, and in my family life, and in my hobbies and music. For example, my ensemble plays mostly traditional material. However, some people on our team have been composing and we want to make original music as well, and some fusion music with Western music ,and probably create albums and CDs.