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60 Years! One of NASA's Longest-Serving Women Marks Milestone

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Sue Finley, one of the longest-serving women in NASA.

This January, one of NASA’s longest-serving women celebrated a landmark anniversary with the space agency. Only two days before the United States launched its first satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958, Sue Finley started what would be a long career at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Sixty years later, the 81-year-old still works at JPL.

“I’m happy here every day,” Finley told Space.com. Over six decades, she has worked on a vast array of missions, from the Mariner satellites that visited Mars in the 1970s to Juno, the mission currently orbiting Jupiter. She loves the work and the people, both of which contribute to an enjoyable work environment, she said.

“I have been extremely lucky,” she said. “It has always been that way here.” [The Women Computers of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Slideshow)]

Finley took an improbable path to working on spacecraft. She spent three years in college studying art with the goal of becoming an architect. After becoming frustrated when she found that her credits wouldn’t transfer to an architect school, she applied to work at an engineering company as a typist. That company was hiring computers — at that time, the term for a person (usually a woman) who calculated vast swaths of numbers for engineers.

“They asked me how I liked math,” Finley said. “I said I liked it much better than letters.”

She didn’t do all the calculations in her head. Using a large Friden calculating machine, she and another woman punched in the numbers for 40 engineers.

After only a few months, Finley married and moved, and the commute to the company became too much for her. Her new husband had graduated from the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech), a partner of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

“He knew that there was a lab up in the mountains I should go and apply to,” she said.

Located in an isolated area next to the San Gabriel Mountains, the lab was started by a group of Caltech students and amateur rocket enthusiasts. They needed somewhere to tinker with rockets without disturbing the local population. When Finley applied to the lab in 1958, it was sponsored by the U.S. Army; NASA wouldn’t form until that October.

Luck played a big role in getting her where she is today, she said. Referring to her lack of a college degree, she said, “I’d never get hired these days.”

JPL was making strides even without the help of NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. In January 1958, JPL launched the United States’ first satellite. Finley started only a few days before the launch, and never got to work on the history-making mission.

“I wouldn’t have known what to do after two days,” she laughed.

Finley worked at JPL for three years before she took off to help her husband obtain his master’s degree. During her hiatus, she took a free class in programming the Friden calculating machine. When she returned to JPL, her ability helped her make the jump from human computer to programmer. From there, she began using the programming language Fortran to work with a new computing machine, a predecessor to today’s digital computers. 

“It was pretty much the same, just a different machine,” Finley said. “And we used punch cards instead of punching the numbers in ourselves.”

After another year and a half at JPL, she took off six years to “have two boys and get them on their way.” Both of her children have grown up and now work in computer-related fields. 

“It’s in the genes,” she said. [‘Rise of the Rocket Girls’ Tells the Stories of NASA’s Women Pioneers]

Finley worked as a programmer making calculations for spacecraft navigation for several years, she said. In the 1980s, she moved over to work with the Deep Space Network (DSN). The DSN provides a constant link to missions in space with three stations around the world, each separated by roughly 120 degrees of longitude. NASA and other agencies use the network to send home the data collected by missions.

“If it weren’t for the DSN, there wouldn’t be any science done, because nobody could listen to [the spacecraft],” Finley said.

She also worked with several missions on their entry, descent and landing tones. As a spacecraft approaches its planet, its more-powerful antennas typically are not pointed back toward Earth. Instead, some craft carry a weaker antenna that broadcasts tones of varying frequency, with each tone signaling a different report back to Earth.

“If everything goes well, it sends the correct tones and everybody’s happy,” she said.

The first mission to broadcast these real-time tones was Mars Pathfinder, which carried Sojourner, the first Martian rover. Finley said that the tones worked so well that NASA decided to use them on all of the more-expensive spacecraft. She said that all of the Mars rovers broadcast these tones, as does Juno. The Mars 2020 mission and Europa Clipper satellite also plan to send back tones.

So far, Finley said, all of the missions carrying tones have been successful. It wasn’t until missions like the Mars Polar Lander (MPL) failed that mission designers recognized how useful the tones could be. When the lander, headed for Mars’ south pole, crashed into the planet’s surface, broadcast tones would have told engineers what had gone wrong in the mission’s final few minutes. Instead, it took much longer for NASA to determine that the most likely cause of the crash came from a software error mis-identifying vibrations during descent, then shutting down the engines 130 feet (40 meters) above the surface. The official report on the loss of the lander concluded that the omission of tones was “not justifiable in the context of MPL as one element of the ongoing Mars exploration program.”

Her favorite mission out of all the ones she has worked on, she said, was the Soviet-French Venera-Gallei (Vega) mission, which dropped survey balloons into the atmosphere of Venus. As part of an international tracking network organized by the French space agency, CNES, the DSN’s antennas communicated with the satellite as the spacecraft traveled through space. The antennas also received signals from the balloons on the Venusian surface over the objects’ two-day lifetime.

Finley said she enjoyed that the mission required only a small team at JPL.

“Everything I did was important. Nobody else could do it,” she said. “That’s a good situation to be in, although it’s high pressure.” [‘Women of NASA’ Lego Set: Q&A with Creator Maia Weinstock]

Over her 60 years of off-and-on work at JPL, Finley has seen many things change, she said.

“Of course, there’s infinitely more bureaucracy, infinitely more paperwork [now],” she said. Scientific and technological advances have added to that paperwork. “We can get much more done now, but we have much more to do.”

Another clear sign of the times is the increased number of female scientists and engineers. “There are a lot more women now,” she said.

In her experience, treatment of female programmers hasn’t changed, and that’s a good thing, Finley said.

“My personal experience has always been that I was treated as an equal colleague, even when I didn’t have an education,” she said. While women secretaries at JPL weren’t given that status when Finley started, “the women engineers have always been treated well.”

Another change she has seen is the addition of a childcare center at JPL for parents of young children, something that didn’t exist when her sons were young.

“It was certainly my biggest problem,” she said.

She said she would advise young women who want to advance as engineers that they should never be afraid to ask questions. Many of the female engineers, as well as the men, don’t like to admit when they don’t know the answers, Finley said. She credits her success in part to her willingness to inquire.

“That’s how I get things done. I have to answer questions,” she said. “I have to ask a million questions.”

For both men and women, she advised, “Never be afraid to say you don’t know — but then go find out.”

Finley said that the number of female managers at JPL has also increased over her time there.

“Probably because the ‘old boy network’ has gotten too old and isn’t here anymore,” she said.

“But this old girl is still here!”

Women at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked as human computers to calculate complex trajectories and more for the center's aerospace research.

Women at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked as human computers to calculate complex trajectories and more for the center’s aerospace research.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Finley celebrated her 81st birthday in October, but said she has no plans to retire.

“Financially, I always figured I had to work until I was at least 70,” she said. Then, NASA’s Juno mission came along, and she committed to sticking around until the satellite entered orbit around Jupiter, which the spacecraft did on July 5, 2016.

Now, she’s committed to getting the DSN’s new antennas online, she said. Although she’s traveled to the stations in California, Spain and Australia frequently in her career, she said she isn’t traveling as much these days. The 70-meter (230 feet) antennas located at each site are supposed to be replaced by four 34-m (112 feet) antennas by 2025.

“There just seems to be something in the future always that they want me to do,” she said. “And there’s nothing at home that I want to do.”

Finley is one of the longest-serving NASA women, according to Andrew Good, a media relations specialist at JPL. Her career illustrates why it is so difficult to pick out a single person who can claim to have had the longest career, he said. 

“Honestly, I’m not sure there’s any way to know,” Good said. That’s because you’d have to have a full account of every female employee who ever worked at any of the 10 NASA centers. Like Finley, many of them took time off to raise children, he said. And like her, quite a few started working at NASA centers before the agency formed, in October 1958. 

Still, Finley plans to keep going at NASA, she said.

“My boss says I can’t retire until he does,” she joked. “He’ll retire in 22 years.”

Follow Nola Taylor Redd at @NolaTRedd, Facebook or Google+. Follow us at @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

Space.com is the premier source of space exploration, innovation and astronomy news, chronicling (and celebrating) humanity's ongoing expansion across the final frontier. We transport our visitors across the solar system and beyond through accessible, comprehensive coverage of the latest news and discoveries. For us, exploring space is as much about the journey as it is the destination. So from skywatching guides and stunning photos of the night sky to rocket launches and breaking news of robotic probes visiting other planets, at Space.com you’ll find something amazing every day.

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Mars Meteorite Will Return to the Red Planet with NASA Rover

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Rohit Bhartia of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission holds a slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars. This slice will likely be used here on Earth for testing a laser instrument for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover; a separate slice will go to Mars on the rover.

A chunk of rock that was once part of Mars, but landed on Earth as a meteorite, will return to the Red Planet aboard a NASA rover set to launch in 2020

The meteorite, known as Sayh al Uhaymir 008 (SaU008) was found in Oman in 1999, but geologists determined that it likely originated on Mars, according to a statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Scientists think collisions between Mars and other large bodies in the solar system’s early days sent chunks of the Red Planet into space, where they might wander for eons before falling onto Earth’s surface.  

Now, NASA scientists are using the meteorite to calibrate an instrument that will fly on the Mars 2020 rover, which is scheduled to drop down on the Red Planet’s surface and collect rock samples that could one day be returned to Earth. One of the rover’s main goals is to evaluate the potential habitability of ancient and present-day Mars. [How NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover Will Work (Infographic)]

The meteorite is being used to calibrate an instrument called the SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals), which will use techniques often used in forensic science to identify chemicals in the Martian rock samples, in features as thin as a human hair.

A close-up of a meteorite that likely came from Mars.

A close-up of a meteorite that likely came from Mars.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The researchers will study the meteorite on Earth, where they are able to make sure their instruments are producing a correct analysis of the rock, and understand what features of the rock are perceptible to their instruments. When the rover settles onto Mars, researchers can once again use the rock to make sure their instruments are working as they should be, before pointing them at features of the Martian surface. 

“We’re studying things on such a fine scale that slight misalignments, caused by changes in temperature or even the rover settling into sand, can require us to correct our aim,” said Luther Beegle, principal investigator for SHERLOC, in the statement. “By studying how the instrument sees a fixed target, we can understand how it will see a piece of the Martian surface.”

There are only about 200 confirmed Martian meteorites that have been found on Earth, according to the statement. The SaU008 meteorite comes from London’s Natural History Museum, which lends out hundreds of meteorites (most of them not from Mars) every year for scientific studies. The SHERLOC team needed a Martian meteorite that was robust enough to endure the journey to Mars without flaking or crumbling. (Launch from Earth and entry into the Martian atmosphere are both very strenuous events for everything on board.) The rock also “needed to possess certain chemical features to test SHERLOC’s sensitivity. These had to be reasonably easy to detect repeatedly for the calibration target to be useful,” according to the statement.  

A slice of a Martian meteorite undergoes oxygen cleaning to remove organics. This slice will remain on Earth to be used for testing and calibrating instruments.

A slice of a Martian meteorite undergoes oxygen cleaning to remove organics. This slice will remain on Earth to be used for testing and calibrating instruments.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Usually, instruments like SHERLOC are calibrated with a variety of materials including rock, metal and glass. And Mars meteorites have been used for instrument calibration in the past. In fact, another instrument aboard the Mars 2020 rover, called SuperCam, will be adding a Mars meteorite to NASA’s calibration target, according to the statement. And while this would be the first Mars meteorite to return to the surface of the Red Planet, NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, which orbits the Red Planet, carries a chunk of a Martian meteorite.

SHERLOC will carry other materials from Earth in addition to Su008, including materials that could be used to make a spacesuit for use on Mars. Observations of how the material withstands the radiation, atmosphere and temperature variations on Mars will provide valuable information for possible crewed trips to the Red Planet.  

“The SHERLOC instrument is a valuable opportunity to prepare for human spaceflight as well as to perform fundamental scientific investigations of the Martian surface,” Marc Fries, a SHERLOC co-investigator and curator of extraterrestrial materials at Johnson Space Center, said in the statement. “It gives us a convenient way to test material that will keep future astronauts safe when they get to Mars.”

Follow Calla Cofield @callacofield. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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Kepler Space Telescope Discovers 95 More Alien Planets

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Planets around other stars are the rule rather than the exception, and there are likely hundreds of billions of exoplanets in the Milky Way alone. NASA’s Kepler space telescope has found more than 2,400 alien worlds, including a new haul of 95 planets announced on Feb. 15, 2018.

The exoplanet discoveries by NASA’s Kepler space telescope keep rolling in.

Astronomers poring through data gathered during Kepler’s current extended mission, known as K2, have spotted 95 more alien planets, a new study reports. 

That brings the K2 tally to 292, and the total haul over Kepler’s entire operational life to nearly 2,440 — about two-thirds of all the alien worlds ever discovered. And more than 2,000 additional Kepler candidates await confirmation by follow-up observations or analysis. [7 Greatest Exoplanet Discoveries by NASA’s Kepler (So Far)]

Kepler launched in March 2009, on a mission to help scientists determine just how common rocky, potentially habitable worlds such as Earth are throughout the Milky Way. For four years, the spacecraft stared continuously at about 150,000 stars, looking for tiny dips in their brightness caused by the passage of planets across their faces.

This work was highly productive, as noted above. But in May 2013, the second of Kepler’s four orientation-maintaining “reaction wheels” failed, and the spacecraft lost its superprecise pointing ability, bringing the original mission to a close.

But mission managers figured out a way to stabilize Kepler using sunlight pressure, and the spacecraft soon embarked on its K2 mission, which involves exoplanet hunting on a more limited basis, as well as observing comets and asteroids in our own solar system, supernovas and a range of other objects and phenomena.

For the new study, researchers analyzed K2 data going all the way back to 2014, zeroing in on 275 “candidate” signals.

“We found that some of the signals were caused by multiple star systems or noise from the spacecraft,” study lead author Andrew Mayo, a Ph.D. student at the Technical University of Denmark’s National Space Institute, said in a statement. “But we also detected planets that range from sub-Earth-sized to the size of Jupiter and larger.”

Indeed, 149 of the signals turned out to be caused by bona fide exoplanets, 95 of which are new discoveries. And one of the new ones is a record setter.

“We validated a planet on a 10-day orbit around a star called HD 212657, which is now the brightest star found by either the Kepler or K2 missions to host a validated planet,” Mayo said. “Planets around bright stars are important because astronomers can learn a lot about them from ground-based observatories.”

The new study was published today (Feb. 15) in The Astronomical Journal.

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

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Russian Cargo Ship Delivers 3 Tons of Supplies to Space Station

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