Peter (left) and a fellow researcher on NASA's DC-8 flying laboratory.

Where are you from?

I was born on a farm in Limburg, a southeastern province of the Netherlands. I now live in Silicon Valley, Calif., a few miles from the NASA-Ames Research Center (ARC).

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.

As a child, I was given a small telescope for Saint Nicholas Day (the 6th of December, the day Dutch people share presents with their children). My first time observing, I saw the moons of Jupiter, which was very exciting. During the second time observing, the telescope slid off the ledge of my second story bedroom window and fell to the ground. I was heart broken. Later, my brother and I saved up money from summer jobs to buy a better telescope. I enjoyed hunting the Messier objects with the telescope, but what made a lasting impression on me was the time I woke up early one morning to watch the Perseid meteor shower.

It is surprising how much you can achieve if you really like your job. I would also advise to share your experiences freely, because a great adventure shared is a great adventure lived.
- Peter Jenniskens

How did you end up working in the space program?

At Leiden University, I graduated with a degree in Astronomical and Simulated Laboratory Studies of Interstellar Matter. After graduating, I was invited to work with Dr. David F. Blake at the NASA-Ames Research Center on the study of astronomical ices using a modified electron microscope.

Who inspired you?

I was inspired by Hans Betlem and the late Rudolf Veltman, amateur astronomers and students at Leiden University, who had just founded the Dutch Meteor Society. People around me regarded my meteor observations as a hobby, more akin to following the weather than doing actual astronomy. But Hans and Rudolf wanted to observe meteors in order to help understand the astronomical origins of meteor showers and to help find meteorites. Amateur astronomers are still my biggest fans and make many of my projects possible.

What is a Research Scientist?

A scientist works to learn new things from observations, theory and experiments. Much of that comes from using new tools and techniques. As a research scientist with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, I study what meteor showers and meteorites teach us about comets and asteroids, the origin of the Zodiacal cloud and our own past and future.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

The Leonid storm of 1999 is still the most intense meteor shower I have observed to date. We flew 72 researchers and crew in three aircraft from Israel to the Azores at the time, and were rewarded by a spectacular display of meteors, fireballs, elves and sprites.

I have particularly fond memories of the return of the 2006 Stardust capsule, the 2008 re-entry of European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle and the 2010 return of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency's Hayabusa spacecraft.

My most unusual mission to date was not an airborne campaign at all, but a search for the remnants of a small asteroid, called 2008 TC3, which was the first asteroid to hit Earth that was observed entering Earth's atmosphere. It crashed in the Nubian desert of northern Sudan. I teamed up to comb the desert with Dr. Muawia Shaddad of the University of Khartoum and 150 of his students. What we found changed our views of asteroids and their relationship to meteorites.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

Dream big and don't give up. Many times my career was about to die with no funding in sight, and skeptical peer reviews or disastrous world events standing in the way of a proposed mission. For example, the Leonid campaign of November 2001 was incredibly difficult to organize so shortly after the events of September 11, but ended up being one of my most rewarding to date. The 2001 Leonids were truly spectacular here in the United States, and the event was subsequently named the number one news story in astronomy. Even though I was the Principal Investigator of the mission, I was grounded because I was still a foreign national at that time. And so I watched the team take to the sky and then drove to nearby Red Rock Canyon State Park (in California). It was great hearing the "oohs" and "aahs" around me as we saw red and green meteors pour out of the Leonid radiant. It was like standing in Ten Forward in an episode of "Star Trek."

What do you do for fun?

My work does not leave much time for other fun projects. To relieve stress, I watch movies, delighted to see that many show meteor showers these days.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?

To a student interested in science and math or engineering, I would advise to follow your heart. It is surprising how much you can achieve if you really like your job. I would also advise to share your experiences freely, because a great adventure shared is a great adventure lived.

Read More

SETI Institute's Airborne Astronomy Page

SETI Intitute's Hayabusa Re-Entry Campaign

Recovery of Pieces of Asteroid 2008TC3

Leonid Observing Campaign

Links to Videos, Stories, etc.

Hayabusa Re-Entry Video

ESA's Automated Transfer Vehicle Re-Entry

Stardust Capsule Re-Entry

Peter at Work