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NMSU researchers open doorway to planets

New Mexico State and NASA have always had a connection, especially since the astronomer who discovered the former planet Pluto in 1930, Clyde W. Tombaugh, taught here.

Tombaugh’s legacy within the astronomy department at New Mexico State remains. That legacy is made evident by the painting of him on the wall right when you enter the building.  Lyle Huber is the archive manager for the Planetary Data System (PDS).

Official PDS Logo
(Image courtesy of American Astronomical Society)

The Planetary Data System is funded by NASA, which pays the university to hire scientists like Huber, along with his colleagues Lynn Neakrace and Reta Beebe. These researchers gather data sent to them from NASA and send it to other scientists all over the country, so they can conduct their own research.

“The PDS is an organization that NASA created about 30 years ago to archive data that come down from planetary spacecraft missions and other relevant planetary science data,” Huber says. The PDS was established in 1989.

The PDS group at New Mexico State is responsible for archiving data based on planetary atmospheres.  Other PDS groups called “nodes” have their own areas of study.  Each node is assigned to a specific area of study, such as comets, asteroids, planetary rings and magnetic fields.  Collectively, nodes from all over the country release data from their respective areas of study to scientists all over the world.

“For example, the main camera and the infrared imager go to what we call the ‘imaging node,’ because they have a particular expertise in handling the camera-tech data because they are very large data sets,” Huber explained. “We are NASA’s door to the general public,” he added.

Another hinge to NASA’s door at New Mexico State is Reta Beebe.  Beebe is a former astronomy professor at New Mexico State, where she taught from 1974 to 1977.  In fact, Huber was one of Beebe’s students.   In 1997, New Mexico State “loaned” her to NASA, where she worked at the headquarters, processing and awarding grants to scientists until 2000.  She came back to New Mexico State in 2000, and has been collecting data for NASA as a PDS staff member for the last 17 years.

“We are NASA’s door to the general public.”

“There are five different archives that NASA collects: One is for the sun, another one is for the interaction of the solar winds, another is for the satellites that are monitoring Earth, there’s an astrophysics one, and the planetary one,” Beebe said.

Lynn Neakrace has been working as a senior research scientist for the PDS in the New Mexico State astronomy department since 2010.  He taught astronomy before working for the PDS, and is also in charge of managing the undergrad assistants.  Neakrace is currently working on a web interface, which is available to the public online.

“We’re responsible for any planetary data that comes from spacecraft. [This data has] to do with planetary atmospheres…basically everything outside of Earth.  We do Venus, Mars, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and some of their moons that have thin atmospheres,” Neakrace said.  He added that he also researches data on Mercury and the moon.

Neakrace also does a lot of work with research and analysis projects funded by NASA.

“A lot of the data analysis programs are specifically used to take data from missions, and then produce new products,” Neakrace said.

“If they take data from several different instruments and then make a new map of Mars, we would be interested in those new products as something new that has been made out of something that already exists,” he added.

Neakrace’s area of specialization lies within the thin atmospheres of Mars and Venus.  While he was in graduate school at Arizona State University, he studied planetary geology with a focus on Mars wind processes.

“We work on data archiving and data retrieval for scientists all across the world to use, stuff that comes from NASA missions,” Neakrace said.

When Neakrace, Beebe, and Huber work on archiving data, they are using data that comes from NASA missions. They are all paid by NASA, but they work at the New Mexico State astronomy department.  They work hard, and they hope to continue the legacy that Clyde Tombaugh set in Las Cruces nearly 90 years ago.

One Comment

  1. Ellen Guenette

    Excellent story! The connection between NMSU and NASA is fascinating! Thank you for writing this very informative, educational, and interesting article!

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