Bonnie J. Buratti was working in Rome when we called to chat on International Women’s Day, which celebrates women’s accomplishments. She is certainly among Arroyoland’s (and the nation’s) superbly accomplished women. Buratti is a planetary astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she is a senior research scientist supervising the Comets, Asteroids and Satellites Group.
She is currently analyzing data from the completed Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn, for which she earned NASA’s Exceptional Achievement Medal. She’s also working on the agency’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and its moons, and is the U.S. Project scientist for the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission, the first spacecraft to soft-land a robot on a comet. In 2014 Buratti, who advises NASA, was elected chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences, and she’s a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union. The International Astronomical Union even named asteroid 90503 “Buratti” in recognition of her work.
In addition to all that, Buratti recently wrote a book for nonscientists who yearn to learn about what’s happening out of this world and in the great beyond. Worlds Fantastic, Worlds Familiar (Cambridge University Press) is a densely packed compendium of modern space exploration throughout the solar system — explaining Mercury, Venus, Mars, comets, asteroids, exoplanets and more — while describing what it all looks like, how they evolved, how we found out about them and who were the people involved. It’s also peppered with wit, personal anecdotes and historical oddities, zooming back to the ancients and into the future as new discoveries alter our understanding of Earth’s place in the universe and the possibilities lurking that we are not alone.
The Altadena resident has been married for 36 years to Cal Poly Pomona physics professor and author Kai S. Lam. They have three grown sons. Buratti holds numerous degrees — a B.S. and M.S. in Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences from MIT and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Astronomy and Space Sciences from Cornell University. We asked her to talk about her life and work.
At 65, you seem to be speeding up instead of slowing down. In many corporate settings, there’s a lot of ageism, especially toward women. Have you experienced that in the science world?
I’ve never thought about it. I know it exists elsewhere, but I would say in science, that’s not true. In science, as you get older, whether you’re a man or a woman, you just gain more knowledge.
So it’s acknowledged that a competent scientist becomes more competent with age?
Some publicity for your book mentions that you write about science from a woman’s perspective. What has gender to do with how a scientist works?
You’ve hit on kind of a controversial subject. Women are perfectly capable of doing science the same as men. That’s very important. There’s no particular women’s way. The most convincing argument in that arena is that women, because of their upbringing, quite often are more cooperative. We tend to be able to work as a team; whereas men might want to get credit, women more easily cooperate together. This is based on our training. It has nothing to do with our ability, but with the way it’s implemented.
You’re in Rome for Cassini, which ended its 20-year journey to Saturn in 2017. What are you working on there?
We’re still doing research, focused on archiving and on legacy, getting everything we’ve learned packaged. I have overall responsibility for the moons of Saturn. My particular interest is in what they are made of. Like, if you were standing on the surface, what would you see? What is their shape, their composition, what is the physical nature of these moons?
Two of those moons seem to have astonished scientists because they are so unexpectedly Earth-like in geology and climate. Do they
enlarge the possibility that there are other worlds where some form of life might exist?
Yes. Before the mission we simply saw the moons as pinpoints of light. The Cassini mission turned them into real worlds. On the small moon Enceladus, for example, we discovered a plume of water, a geyser, basically. We discovered lakes on Titan, not of water but of methane and ammonia — the only place in the solar system other than Earth where there is a standing body of liquid.
Elon Musk recently sent a cherry-red Tesla into space blaring David Bowie and carrying a mannequin named Starman at the wheel. That caused scientists at Purdue University and elsewhere to worry that the car might not be “clean” enough, and might contaminate Mars with earthly bacteria. NASA deliberately crashed Cassini into Saturn when its mission ended so it wouldn’t roam uncontrolled and perhaps contaminate areas that should be kept pristine for further exploration. Is NASA concerned about contamination from Musk’s Tesla and other potential privately-owned space launches?
NASA has a very strict protocol for what’s known as planetary protection. Anytime you put anything into space, you have to do rigorous planetary protection analysis. Musk and SpaceX are not working for NASA. Theirs are not NASA activities. I think NASA was concerned about it and I think the possibility that it might affect Mars was small and unlikely. But they did not do the analysis that NASA would have done. I really can’t comment on all that. There’s another concern that many scientists have, and that is that putting a Tesla in space is an advertising event, whereas we would have liked to see a scientific payload instead, something that had instruments and could study the space environment.
You’ve worked on so many different projects. Do you have a favorite planet?
Good question. It’s a really close call between Titan and Pluto.
Is Titan a planet? I thought it was a moon of Saturn.
Well no, it’s not a planet. Neither is Pluto, technically, for that matter. The International Astronomical Union downgraded it to a dwarf planet in 2006. But we scientists don’t think in terms of what we should call [a celestial body]. We’re not concerned with that.
So why are Titan and Pluto your favorites?
Titan is the most Earthlike of celestial bodies. It has lakes. It has evidence there were glaciers in the past. It has running rivers, a thick atmosphere and a lot of landforms that look like Earth’s. It has clouds and seasons and very interesting objects. And Pluto is so much more than we expected. It is the first object in the solar system on which we found active geysers. We see evidence of something melted, and what looks like something flowing over it that we don’t understand yet. It looks like snow has occurred.
Similarities between Earth and other planets is one theme of your book. Can you talk about that?
A lot of phenomena we see on Earth are replicated on the planets. Take, for example, the greenhouse effect, the warming of Earth’s climate due to the influx of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That happened on Venus already. Venus had oceans in its history. Because of the unconstrained accumulation of carbons, a runaway greenhouse effect evaporated all the oceans. They all disappeared. It became a very hot world. So that is kind of an extreme case of what is happening on Earth right now.
Mars is also similar to Earth. It started out wetter. There were oceans in its early history. We think the origin of life on Mars may have been similar to origins of life on Earth. So the search for life on Mars is part of the search for life as it would have been on early Earth.
Are we any closer to discovering the origins of human life?
We really aren’t. We’re putting a lot of effort into that because it’s one of the greatest questions to be answered.
Your book has some nail-biting moments of tension and excitement, as various missions make fantastic discoveries. It’s a kind of Indiana Jones tale that takes place in space. You also write about the poetry of science. How would you explain all this to an ace science student who’s trying to decide on a career?
The book isn’t for scientists. It’s for the public to help explain space science, which is a heritage of the American people and belongs to all of them. I also really wanted to show younger people — those who are high school level and above — how much fun science is, and motivate them to do the kinds of things I do. It doesn’t have to be space science, but any of the other types, like engineering or helping to solve the climate problem.
Science is poetic in the sense that it’s about having a new idea, a great idea. When we get that flash of insight, it’s very similar to the insight flash you get in any artistic or creative endeavor. I’d say to be a great scientist, you really have to study everything, not just science. I think it was the Greek philosopher Terence who said, “Let nothing that is human be alien to you.” You have to just expand your mind to take ideas from every area you can take them. Of course, it’s 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration. But at the moment you finally make that sublime discovery, you know it has all been worth it.
Any comment on President Trump’s idea for a space force, a branch of the military trained to fight wars in space?
The U.S. is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty, which states (Article IV): “The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military maneuvers on celestial bodies shall be forbidden.”
With all scientists now know, do you believe there’s a possibility of intelligent life somewhere out there in space?
I just don’t know. We shouldn’t be the only ones, but we haven’t found any evidence of any life elsewhere, let alone intelligent life.