Born Carolyn C. Porco in 1953, in New York, NY. Education: State University of New York at Stony Brook, B.S. in physics and astronomy, c. 1976; California Institute of Technology, Ph.D. in planetary sciences, 1983.
Addresses: Office—Space Science Institute, 4750 Walnut St., Ste. 205, Boulder, CO 80301.
Began work as a planetary scientist as a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, early 1980s; joined the faculty of the Planetary Sciences Department at the University of Arizona, 1983, and simultaneously worked as imaging team member for Voyager mission to Uranus, 1986, and Neptune, 1989; imaging team leader for the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn, 1990—; senior researcher, Space Science Institute, Boulder, CO, 2003—.
Awards: "Asteroid 7231 Porco" named in her honor for contributions to the field of planetary science, 1998.
Carolyn Porco may walk upon the earth, but as a planetary scientist her mind is far away. Captivated by the vastness of space, Porco has dedicated her life to studying the mysteries it holds. "I enjoy my career because it allows me to live my life on a plane different than most people do," Porco told Tucson Citizen reporter Mitch Tobin. "My mental life is spent elsewhere—it's spent in the outer solar system."
In 1990 Porco became the imaging team leader for the Cassini-Huygens mission, which is charged with exploring earth's planetary sibling Saturn. As such, Porco helped design the most complex camera system sent into space, complete with 200- and 2,000-millimeter lenses capable of taking black and white, color, infrared, and ultraviolet pictures. The $3.4 billion, camera-bearing Cassini spacecraft was launched in 1997 and reached Saturn in July of 2004, providing Porco and her scientist pals with closeups of the planet, its many moons and rings. The craft was to send back images for four years, keeping Porco busy with analysis.
Porco was born into an Italian working-class family in New York City in 1953. She grew up alongside four brothers in the Bronx. Her interest in astronomy came about during an adolescent spiritual quest, which led her to study eastern religions and philosophy. According to Newsday's Earl Lane, as Porco pondered these topics, she began to wonder, "what are we doing here and what's out there." These ruminations led to a fascination with planets and galaxies. "In a figurative and a literal sense, I was looking from inside to outside," she told Lane.
By the time Porco entered the Catholic Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx in the mid-1960s, she knew she wanted to study planets. Following graduation, Porco enrolled at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she earned an undergraduate degree in physics and astronomy. By 1976, Porco was a graduate student in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at the California Institute of Technology, where NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is based. While Porco was at the university, the Voyager I spacecraft flew past Saturn, sending the lab thousands of images and vast amounts of data. The sheer amount of information streaming in was too much for the imaging team to handle, so Porco was handed the data on Saturn's ring system. Highly intuitive and able to synthesize information effectively, Porco made some significant discoveries concerning the rings and the planet's magnetic field.
Porco earned her doctorate in 1983 and joined the University of Arizona planetary sciences department. After Porco received her graduate degree, she became an official member of the Voyager imaging team and analyzed data from Voyager II's 1986 pass by Uranus and 1989 pass by Neptune. Among the main 178 scientists working on the Voyager mission, only seven were female. Porco has said that she is glad she can be a role model to other women and girls interested in science, though she tends to downplay the topic when it arises. Porco explained it this way to the Boston Globe's David L. Chandler, "The beauty to me of science is that what we are really after is the truth . So if a person, male or female, is good at what they do, and competent, and it's obvious they're competent, in the end everyone is going to pay attention."
In 1990, Porco became imaging team leader for the Cassini mission to Saturn, beating out applicants with more experience. Clearly, Porco had already earned a reputation as a promising solar system scholar. "As an undergraduate, she was bright-eyed, feisty and full of enthusiasm," Stony Brook astronomer Michal Simon told Newsday, "and that's exactly what she became as an astronomer."
Through the Cassini mission, scientists hope to obtain new data that might tell them how the solar system was formed, or how life on earth began. "We are attempting to understand our own planet as one of a family of planets all born of the same parent, of the same material, at the same time," Porco told Carolyn Niethammer of the New York Times. "We enhance our chances of understanding what makes this complex system work by having another example to study."
Launched in 1997, the bus-sized Cassini spacecraft traveled nearly seven years and more than two billion miles before it began orbiting Saturn in 2004. The spacecraft was expected to take some 500,000 images. In addition, a European-built probe dove from the spacecraft into Saturn's largest moon, Titan. Porco breathed a sigh of relief when the spacecraft reached Saturn and began sending back images, but her work was far from over. As the spacecraft orbits the planet, new moons and other phenomena are discovered, forcing the imaging crew to write new commands for the spacecraft. "We do retargetable observations of such objects," Porco told CNN's Bjorn Carey. "We find a new moon, determine its orbit and then use that information to predict where the moon will be at a later time so that we can take a closer look at it. It's a very deadline-driven activity."
When the Cassini mission comes to an end, Porco will focus her energies on Pluto as a member of the imaging team for the New Horizons mission, which will give scientists the first close-ups of Pluto. Arrival is expected around 2015. In 2003, Porco became a senior researcher at the Boulder, Colorado-based Space Science Institute. In other pursuits, Porco worked as an advisor for movie producers for 1997's Contact, a film that starred Jodie Foster as an extraterrestrial-seeking scientist. Porco's other passion is the Beatles. Porco, who has every album the Fab Four ever released, says one of her greatest disappointments is not getting to see them perform live.
Over the years, Porco has appeared on many major network television newscasts talking about astronomy. Highly charismatic, Porco has a gift for conveying the joys of astronomy to the average person. For all of her accomplishments in the field of planetary exploration, Porco was honored in 1998 when "Asteroid 7231 Porco" was named for her.
Porco is aware that some people scoff at her projects as another example of government largess; however, she believes exploring new frontiers is inevitable for humans, who may one day colonize other planets. "It's in us; it's part of our genetic makeup," Porco told the Tucson Citizen. "Dogs don't seem to do it, giraffes don't do it, fish don't do it but humans do. It's what we're made of. We explore because exploring must convey an evolutionary advantage to us. You have to prevent us from doing it."
Boston Globe, October 2, 1989, p. 41.
Daily Camera (Boulder, Colorado), June 28, 2004, p. A1.
New York Times, August 17, 1999, p. 3.
Tucson Citizen, January 19, 2001.
"Astronomer's 'Cosmic Connection' to Saturn," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2005/TECH/space/02/15/saturn.astronomer/index.html (February 16, 2005).
"Mission Operations," Space Science Institute, http://www.spacescience.org/missionops/index_more.html (April 22, 2005).
"She's the Ringleader: Stony Brook Grad will Lead Team Running the Cameras, Studying Pictures when Cassini Enters Orbit this Week," Newsday, http://www.newsday.com/news/health/nyhsporc273870395jun28,0,4544007,print.story?c (April 22, 2005).