Dragonfly Guest Investigator Program Provides Bridge to Opportunities

From left, Dragonfly guest investigators Brianna Wiley, Will Suero Amparo, Andrea Bryant, Dragonfly Principal Investigator Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle, and guest investigators Anna Engle and Karla Negrete. (Credit: Johns Hopkins APL)

Karla Negrete always wondered how she could apply her mechanical engineering skills in the space field, so when she stumbled upon the Dragonfly Student and Early Career Guest Investigator Program on LinkedIn two years ago, she jumped at the chance to pursue the discipline in a formal program.

Little did she know that just months later, her work would be publicly available and utilized by science team members on Dragonfly, a NASA rotorcraft-lander expedition to Saturn's large, exotic moon Titan.

Negrete is one of many students getting a firsthand, formal introduction to planetary science through the program. She received her bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and is now in a doctoral program at Drexel University.

"My project experience has given me a toolbox of skills I would not have acquired elsewhere," Negrete said. “From my understanding of physical chemistry to polishing my programming skills to even inspiring parts of the research in my doctoral degree, being part of a mission like this so early in my career has shaped the trajectory of my career interests. I've gained niche interest in relating graduate research to space exploration."

The Dragonfly guest investigator program, of which Negrete was part, is the brainchild of Elizabeth “Zibi" Turtle, the mission's principal investigator and a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. She wanted the mission to include opportunities for early career scientists and engineers to gain experience during the early phases of the mission, as well as the science operations phase at Titan. Turtle worked with Lynnae Quick, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, who leads the guest investigator program, and other Dragonfly team members to develop the program as part of the mission proposal they submitted to NASA.

The program pairs students with Dragonfly scientists and engineers throughout the course of the mission. Students work on projects under the mentorship of Dragonfly team members with an aim to expand mission involvement, increase science return and provide experience to the next generation of scientists and engineers.

“By reaching out to students who don't already have connections to spacecraft missions or who do not have a planetary science background, the program is intended to serve as a bridge for those students, providing networking and training opportunities for the next generation of mission team members and leaders," Turtle said.

Each student project runs for two years, and to date, two cohorts are working on Dragonfly. Negrete and two other students began in 2020 and will participate through 2022, and two more started in November 2021 and will participate through 2023. The call for applications for the third cohort opened in January 2022, with applications due in May 2022.

Negrete's project, “Composition Library for Interpretation of DragonCam Data of Titan Surface Samples," is intended to support the interpretation of color images that will be relayed back from DragonCam, Dragonfly's camera suite, by compiling a library of VIS-IR spectra, including spectra of both individual and mixed compounds anticipated on Titan's surface.

Her next step is to simulate color imaging recorded by DragonCam using the VIS-IR spectra of compounds and mixtures generated. This data will be useful in constraining the range of anticipated 'colors' on Titan as seen by DragonCam.

Shannon MacKenzie, an APL planetary scientist and Negrete's mentor in the program, said it's humbling to have the chance to provide support to the next generation of graduate students.

“The guest investigator program is bringing students who wouldn't normally consider space-related applications of their STEM fields into contact with all the work required to make a mission like Dragonfly a reality," said MacKenzie, who also serves on the mission science team. “We're reaching out to students whose institutions may not have existing connections to planetary science or NASA missions, including historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions."

“The program is a real testament to Zibi's dedication to building a strong team that serves not only the mission and each other but also the science and technical community at large," MacKenzie added.

Quick, the lead for the Dragonfly guest investigator program, said it's designed to reach “high-achieving graduate students and give them experience in planetary mission work."

“We hope that it will inform their knowledge of potential career paths in planetary science," Quick said. “This program brings in a group of STEM students each year to participate in Dragonfly mission development activities and it positively impacts the diversity of science that we're able to do on the mission while broadening representation amongst mission team membership."

The response from mentors has also been overwhelmingly positive and attracted scientists and engineers alike.

"These students are on the ball; they are excellent academically and in their research," Quick said. “Broadening participation means finding talented, smart and qualified students. We are looking for that team of future leaders who can contribute to Dragonfly and other robotic missions."

Current Dragonfly mentors include MacKenzie , Richard Miller, Jorge Núñez and Patrick Peplowski from APL; Mark Panning from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Ann Parsons and Melissa Trainer from NASA Goddard.

The program's first cohort of graduate student guest investigators are Negrete, Andrea Bryant, who's studying physics at the University of Chicago; and Brianna Wylie, who's studying mechanical engineering at the Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University. The second cohort is Anna Engle, astronomy and planetary science student at the Northern Arizona University, and Will Suero Amparo, biomedical engineering student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Their projects include seismic investigation of Titan's interior; developing a compositional library for interpretation of Dragonfly surface observations; development of the LEDs for illumination of the DragonCam microscopic imager; interpretation of surface compositional measurements with the Dragonfly Gamma Ray and Neutron Spectrometer (DraGNS); and planning for surface operations of the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS).

Dragonfly is scheduled to launch in 2027 and reach Titan by the mid-2030s.