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Karen Meech
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Mission - Biographies

Karen Meech
Co-Investigator, Deep Impact

Karen's Bio Up Close and Personal
Karen Meech

What is the Coolest thing about Deep Impact?
I think the coolest thing about the mission was that we were actually going to perform an experiment on one of those fuzzy patches of light that I had spent my lifetime studying! Unlike much of astronomy where you don't get to do an actual experiment "on site", Deep Impact gave us a unique opportunity to do this, and to do it on a short timescale (compared to outer planet missions). Another amazing aspect of this mission was the emormous world-wide science cooperation to watch the event unfold.

Why do you like working at the University of Hawaii?
Astronomers at the University of Hawaii have access to the world's best observing site on top of Mauna Kea on the big island of Hawaii! Not many astronomers enjoy the convenience of such a nearby excellent facility. In addtion, the University of Hawaii has a large astronomy faculty, so it is a very stimulating environment in which to work. Not only that, the unique island environment of Hawaii, with one of the most active volcanos on earth, has provided other areas of research excellence here in ocean sciences and geophysics. These are being combined with astronomy and planetary science into a new field of "Astrobiology" - understanding the conditions for the origins of life, the astronomical biosignatures, and environments (on Earth and in space) where life might survive. These are the type of fundamental questions that humans have wondered about throughout history, and Deep Impact is playing a role in answering them in the context of Astrobiology by giving us clues to the primitive material inside comets and what the building blocks of a solar system that does have life in it look like.

Of course I'd be remiss not to say that living in a tropical paradise with stretches of golden and black sand beaches, adjacent to palms swaying in the tropical breezes, looking out over azure waters does have some part in liking to work at the university!

What is your job on the Deep Impact project?
As one of the science team members, my primary responsibility was the Earth-observing coordination. This included a major undertaking of observing for years before we got to the comet to characterize our target before we hit it - getting observations to help understand how fast it rotates, how dark it's surface was, how big it was, and how much dust was escaping as it moved closer to and farther from the sun. At the time of encounter, this role expanded to help the world's observers plan the optimum complementary plan for observing the comet at encounter. The observations from the spacecraft were limited in time as we flew by, and limited in the wavelengths we could observe by the instruments that were carried on board. We didn't have these limitations from Earth, and by using ground-based telescopes and Earth-orbital satellites we could cover the whole range of wavelengths from x-rays, ultraviolet, visible, infrared, and radio, over long times before and after impact. Of course the observations from Earth didn't have the spatial resolution that the spacecraft did. Combining both types of data in a complementary manner gives us much more information than either set alone.

How did you end up in space exploration?
In 1966, a new TV show came out that probably affected a generation of kids almost as much as the landings on the moon did - or perhaps it was the combination of the two. This show was Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek. I was 7, and I loved that show - it fired my imagination like nothing had before! I got the whole family involved. We'd have a special dinner on Star Trek night - eating on TV trays on the living room so we could watch. After this show came out, in the summers Dad and I would "camp" in the back yard under the heavens carpeted with stars and I'd imagine exploring space. I decided then and there that is what I was going to do with my life! Mom and dad said I should wait and see if I really liked physics, and being stubborn, I said I would and that was that (well, first year physics wasn't that fascinating - who can really love learning about slabs sliding down frictionless planes?, but I stuck it out)! One January while I was still in middle school, there was a 6 week long teacher's strike and I was at home, snowbound. I spent the entire time "learning astronomy". My only resource was the Encyclopædia Britannica, and I'd opened up the section on stars. Because the description was so advanced, I ended up "taking notes" by copying the entire entry by hand for weeks... (it seemed like 20-30 pages of tiny print). Needless to say, and lucky for Deep Impact, this seemed to put me off stellar astronomy!

What do you do in your spare time?
Spare - "to have left over, as margin". I had to look that up. I wasn't familiar with the term "spare time". The neat thing about a career in something that you had a childhood passion in is that you are always doing it! While I don't have "spare time", I do make time for certain activities. I love gourmet cooking - and about once a year I make a large authentic medieval feast for friends. I enjoy music - playing the piano - reading and outdoor activities such as scuba diving and kayaking. My favorite activity, however, is traveling and exploring, and I've lately gotten into backpacking and spent about 10 days this summer hiking in the remote wilderness of the interior of Iceland and the Scottish highlands.

Who in your life inspired you?
Imaginary? Star Trek explorers. Real life? There have been many - from the first astronauts who walked on the moon, to some close mentors as I was starting out my career. One was Dr. Dorrit Hoffleit, a Yale astronomer who was director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory, and who gave me my first astronomy job. Another inspiration was Dr. Janet A. Mattei, former director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers - a delightful turkish astronomer who dedicated her life to nurturing science in many people's lives.

What is one yet-to-be achieved goal?
I'd still love to get into space...

Were you science and math oriented as a child?
Yes. Dad taught chemistry, and mom had a biology background. Science was always a part of the household when I was growing up.

What was your favorite book as a young person?
This is a very hard question, I read 1000's of books growing up! In the summers I'd maybe go through one a day. I always liked anything involved with adventure. For some reason though, two books stand out as memorable: A. Rand's The Fountainhead and Anya Seaton's Katherine (a classic love story of medieval England)

When you were young, what did you want to become when you grew up?
An Astronaut.

If you weren't working in space exploration now, what would you be doing?

It just simply was not an option that I wouldn't be working in some capacity in space exploration! But, since I love oceans... maybe I'd be doing something like Jacques Cousteau or an archaeologist on a dig, or like the Adamsons, studying wild lions in Africa.

What advice do you have for students?
Find a passion early and your dreams can come true. But - in science, this will involve lots and lots of math - so start early!


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Last Updated: 28 Jun 2010