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Meet: Jennifer Heldmann

photo of Jennifer in space suit
Planetary Scientist
National Research Council
NASA Ames Research Center

Career Fact Sheet Print Version

Who I am and what I do
I spend my time doing many varied tasks that are all related to the study of planetary science. I process and analyze spacecraft data to better understand the surface and interior of Mars, I write computer codes to simulate the behavior of liquid water on the surface of Mars, and I travel to remote regions on Earth that are very Mars-like to study these systems and learn how to live and work in such extreme and (sometimes) hostile environments.

I also study the Moon and am working on a lunar mission called LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite). We're going to impact the Moon with a big rocket to kick up a lot of Moon dirt and maybe even some water ice (if it exists on the Moon - we're going to find out)! For LCROSS I am working on the Science Team, organizing a Site Selection Workshop (so we can figure out where to hit the Moon!), and organizing as many telescopes as possible (at the Moon, orbiting Earth, and on the ground) to observe the LCROSS impact!

For LCROSS I work on many different tasks, and that makes my job exciting!  I am on the Science Team where we analyze data and theories to better understand the Moon.  I help with payload testing, which means we work in the lab (on Earth!) to test out the instruments before we send them to the Moon. I am also working with astronomers to observe the LCROSS impacts from telescopes both on Earth and in space. There are lots of things to do when working on a Moon mission and everyone on the LCROSS team works together to get the jobs done.

Areas of expertise

  • Recent water on Mars
  • Spacecraft data analysis
  • Mars analog field work at different locations around Earth (Arctic, Australia, Chile, Death Valley, Svalbard, Utah)
  • Theoretical modeling
  • Lunar Science and lunar missions

How I first became interested in this profession
I have always been interested in the study of space. I remember that we learned about the planets one day in third grade and from then I was hooked (even though I never officially studied the solar system again until I was in college)! My friend introduced me to the movie “Space Camp” when I was 10 years old and after that we would set up our own shuttle “cockpit” and re-enact the mission from lift-off to landing. My fascination with all aspects of space only grew as I got older and I continued to learn as much as I could about astronomy, the planets, and all aspects of human space flight.

What helped prepare me for this job
Working hard in school was definitely critical to preparing me for my job. Not only did I learn a great deal about a wide variety of subjects but I also learned how to work effectively on my own, as well as in a group, which is very important.

My education and training

  • B.S., Astrogeophysics, Colgate University
  • M.S., Space Studies, Minor in Geology, University of North Dakota
  • Ph.D., Planetary Science, Univ. of Colorado at Boulder

My career path
During college I participated in many summer internships doing planetary science and astronomy research (Williams College, Cornell University, Space Telescope Science Institute, US Space Camp, NASA Astrobiology Academy). While in college, I taught introductory astronomy at both Colgate University (3.5 years) and the University of Colorado (2 years). I completed my Ph.D. and then accepted a post-doctorate position at NASA Ames.

I am now a Principal Investigator working at both NASA Ames Research Center in the Space Sciences Division and the SETI Institute in the Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. I am also an Adjunct Professor in the Physics Department at Santa Clara University where I teach an introductory course on Planetary Science.

What I like about my job
I like that every day I get to come to work and do something different than what I did the day before. Each day is a new challenge and offers me the opportunity to discover something new about the world and universe we live in. I work on a variety of projects with many great people, which lets me learn about many different things all at once, and I like to share that knowledge with others.

What I don't like about my job
Sometimes there is a lot of paperwork associated with the government bureaucracy, but if you just learn to work within the system then it can be OK.

My advice to anyone interested in this occupation
Work hard in school and learn as much as you can! Armed with knowledge and dedication, you will succeed and can make substantial contributions to the scientific community.

Updated: August 2007


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