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Ocampo, Adriana C.: 1955—: Planetary Geologist

Adriana C. Ocampo: 1955: Planetary geologist

Adriana Ocampo, a senior research planetary scientist with the European Space Agency (ESA) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, is an expert on remote sensing. Geologists and geographers use remote-sens-ing instruments on Earth to study surface terrain. Ocampo used remote-sensing instruments mounted on spacecraft to study Earth and other planets, moons, comets, and asteroids. Ocampo and other planetary geologists also study extraterrestrial remnants on Earth, such as meteorites. In more than two decades as a research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Ocampo worked on several space missions. She also co-discovered the impact crater on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, where scientists believe that an asteroid or comet collided with the Earth 65 million years ago, setting off a chain of events that resulted in the extinction of more than 60% of the planet's species, including the dinosaurs. Ocampo has devoted her energies to improving international cooperation in space exploration and narrowing the space science gap between developed and developing nations.

Joined JPL as a Teenager

One of three daughters of Teresa Uria de Ocampo, a Montessori teacher, and Victor Alberto Ocampo, an electrical engineer, Adriana C. Ocampo was born on January 5, 1955, in Barranquilla, Colombia. She was raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where her interest in space exploration was evident at an early age. Ocampo turned her dolls into astronauts and built spaceships out of kitchen utensils. She never went to bed without looking at the stars and contemplating outer space. Her parents encouraged her interests.

Ocampo's family emigrated to the United States when she was 14. At school in Argentina Ocampo had been steered toward a career in business or accounting, but at her new high school in Pasadena, California, she was able to study physics and calculus. Still she found attitudes in the United States less conducive to female scientists than in Argentina. However, in 1973, after her junior year in high school, Ocampo got a summer job at JPL in Pasadena. She continued to work there part-time throughout college. She majored in aerospace engineering at Pasadena City College and participated in a JPL-sponsored science program. Switching her major, Ocampo graduated from California State University at Los Angeles with a B.S. in geology in 1983, having specialized in planetary science. She went to work at JPL as a full-time research scientist.

At a Glance . . .

Born Adriana C. Ocampo on January 5, 1955, in Barranquilla, Colombia; daughter of Teresa Uria de Ocampo and Victor Alberto Ocampo; married Kevin O. Pope (divorced). Education: California State University, Los Angeles, BS, geology, 1983; California State University, Northridge, MS, geology, 1997.

Career: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA, Pasadena, CA, student researcher, 1973-83, research scientist, 1983-98; NASA, Washington, DC, program executive, 1998-02; European Space Agency, Noordwijk, Netherlands, senior research scientist, 2002.

Memberships: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; Association of Women in Geoscience; "Embrace Space," NASA representative to international advisory board, 1998; Pan American Space Conference, founder; Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers; Society of Women Engineers; The Planetary Society; many other organizations.

Awards: Woman of the Year Award in Science, Comision Femenil, Los Angeles, 1992; Advisory Council for Women Award, JPL, 1996; Science and Technology Award, Chicano Federation, 1997.

Address: Office European Space Agency, ESTEC, Planetary Division, code SCI-SB, Keplerlaan 1, 2200 AG Noordwijk, Netherlands.

While working at the JPL Multi-mission Image Processing Laboratory, Ocampo became an expert on processing images obtained via remote sensing. She was a member of the imaging team for the Viking mission to Mars, planning observations of the Mars moons, Phobos and Deimos, and searching for a ring and other Mars satellites. She worked on both sequence planning and data analysis of the Mars images and produced a photo atlas of Phobos. Published by NASA in 1984, it is the only atlas of Phobos and was used to plan the Russian Phobos mission.

Worked on Numerous Planet Mapping Projects

On the Mars Observer project Ocampo was in charge of the thermal emission spectrometer (TES). TES was designed to measure the planet's heat so that cartographers could make more accurate maps of Mars' surface. However the mission failed in 1993 when a malfunction caused the spacecraft to spin out of control and all signals were lost.

On the Voyager mission to the outer planets, Ocampo was a member of the navigation and mission planning team. Her work included the development of the Saturn ephemeridestables showing the changing positions of Saturn and its satellitesto be used for the Voyager's encounter with the planet. Ocampo also was a co-investigator on the Hermes mission to explore the planet Mercury.

Ocampo was also in charge of the Near Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (NIMS) on the Project Galileo space probe, as NIMS science coordinator for Galileo's Flight Projects Mission Operations. NIMS was one of four remote-sensing instruments mounted on Galileo for its mission to Jupiter. The space probe was launched in 1989, entering Jupiter's orbit in December of 1995. As it passed the asteroid Gaspra, NIMS scanned its surface, revealing that the asteroid was covered with pulverized rock and dust that was thinner than that of the moon. It also showed that the asteroid's peak temperature was about 230 degrees Kelvin. NIMS measured reflected heat and sunlight from Jupiter's atmosphere, providing data on the planet's composition, temperature, and cloud structure. It also provided information about the mineralogy and surface chemistry of Jupiter's moons. Ocampo was responsible for planning the observations of Jupiter's moon Europa and analyzing the data. She and her colleagues published their work on the surface composition of Europa and Ocampo contributed to a high school textbook that uses the Galileo spacecraft to teach mathematics.

Studied the Chicxulub Impact Crater

The theory that a large asteroid crashed into Earth, starting a chain of events that led to mass extinctions, was first proposed by the physicist Luis Alvarez, his songeologist Walter Alvarez, and others in the early 1980s. The only evidence at the time was the existence of a thin layer of the rare element iridium in 65-million-year-old geological strata called the K/T boundary because it demarcates the geological shift from the Cretaceous to the Tertiary periods. Iridium is more prevalent in comets and asteroids than on Earth. The scientists postulated that the impact led to global fires, smoke, and dust clouds that blocked the sun, cooling the planet and preventing photosynthesis.

In 1981 oil geologists discovered the buried Chicxulub crater on the coast of Yucatán, estimated to be about 120 miles (200 kilometers) in diameter. In 1989 and 1990 Ocampo, her then-husband Dr. Kevin O. Pope, and Charles Duller were using satellite images to map water resources in the Yucatán. They found a semicircular ring of sinkholes, called "cenotes," that Ocampo recognized as related to the crater. They hypothesized that the crater might be the K/T impact site and published their findings in the journal Nature in May of 1991.

Ocampo joined the Chicxulub Consortium, a joint venture by American and Mexican scientists, to study the crater. In 1991 Ocampo and Pope led an international expedition of scientists and volunteers, sponsored by the Exobiology Program of NASA's Office of Space Science and The Planetary Society (TPS) of Pasadena. The expedition discovered two new sites. The site in Alvaro Obregon, Mexico, consists of two layers of material, called ejecta, that were thrown out by the impact and flowed lava-like across the surface in fluidized ejecta lobes. Impact ejecta are very rare on Earth and these were the first such lobes to be observed directly. The surface exposure of ejecta at Alvaro Obregon is the closest to the Chicxulub crater that has been found and is the best example known from a big impact crater.

The discovery of the Chicxulub ejecta lobes has important implications for understanding Mars. Ejecta lobes cover much of Mars, since its surface has remained unchanged for billions of years, preserving the debris from rare impacts. Ocampo told the JPL newsletter "Stardust:" "The discovery of these new ejecta sites is very exciting. It is like seeing a bit of Mars on Earth."

Ejecta Studies Led to New Discoveries

The second new ejecta site in Belize contains tiny green glass spheres called tektitesrocks that were melted by the heat of the impact. The team collected about 900 pounds (400 kilograms) of samples and drill cores for paleomagnetic studies, as well as fossils to help date the site. Among their fossils was a new species of crab from the Late Cretaceous and a new species of gastropod. With sponsorship from TPS, Ocampo led further geological expeditions to Belize in January of 1995, 1996, and 1998. In 1996 she co-led a TPS expedition to Gubbio in Italy, to drill at the original discovery site of impact ejecta at the K/T boundary.

Ocampo has given numerous presentations on her Chicxulub research at universities and professional meetings. Scientists now believe that the Chicxulub crater was formed by the impact of an asteroid or comet that was six to eight miles (10 to 14 kilometers) in diameter. Since the impact rock is very rich in sulfur, it is postulated that the impact resulted in a global sulfuric acid cloud that caused the Earth's atmosphere to remain opaque for about 10 years. Ocampo earned her master's of science degree in geology from California State University at Northridge in 1997 with a thesis on the Chicxulub impact crater. She was awarded a grant by NASA to continue her research on the impact's effects on Earth's biosphere and its relation to the mass extinction.

In 1996 Ocampo presented her team's discovery of a chain of impact craters in the central African nation of Chad. The craters were found using radar images taken by the Spaceborne Imaging Radar C/X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR) mounted on the space shuttle Endeavor in 1994. Ocampo told the JPL press office, "The Aorounga craters are only the second chain of large craters known on Earth, and were apparently formed by the break-up of a large comet or asteroid prior to impact. With ground confirmation, this second chain will provide valuable data on the nature and origin of small bodies that cross Earth's orbit." The craters are believed to have been formed by an asteroid or comet that was about one-tenth the size of the one that formed the Chicxulub crater.

The study of impact craters has become important for understanding how the Earth and solar system formed and how life has evolved. Ocampo estimated that the Chad craters are about 360 million years old, corresponding to another period of mass biological extinctions. Ocampo told JPL, "These impacts in Chad weren't big enough to cause the extinction, but they may have contributed to it. Could these impacts be part of a larger event? Were they, perhaps, part of comet showers that could have added to the extinction? Little by little, we are putting the puzzle together to understand how Earth has evolved."

Promoted International Involvement in Space Research

In an interview on the Planetary Radio Show on January 6, 2003, Ocampo explained that "space exploration is the ultimate tool for international cooperation." Under the sponsorship of TPS, she organized a program to bring planetary science to developing countries. The first course, held in Mexico City in 1987, proved so successful that TPS, the United Nations, and the ESA sponsored additional workshops in Costa Rica and Colombia in 1992, Nigeria in 1993, and Egypt in 1994. Ocampo worked with the United Nations to develop these workshops, which have now been conducted in various countries, including Argentina in 2002 and China in 2003. Ocampo also founded the Pan American Space Conference to promote international communication and cooperation in space science and technology. As a member of the JPL Speakers Bureau, she promoted space science and engineering in the United States and abroad, in English and Spanish.

Ocampo served on the board of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers for five years, as secretary for one year, and as vice president for two years. She also was a member of the society's space committee and chaired its international affairs committee, where she established cooperative technical programs and university student exchange programs between the United States and Mexico. Ocampo is a member of TPS's advisory council, which works to disseminate scientific results and increase awareness of planetary exploration among the general public.

In 1998 Ocampo moved to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., as a program executive in the Office of Space Science, where she worked on joint missions with the ESA, Russia, and Japan. She also worked in the Solid Earth and Natural Hazards Division of the Office of Earth Science. In NASA's Office of External Relations, Ocampo was desk officer for Spain, Portugal, Russia, and the former Soviet republics. She moved to the ESA's planetary division in 2002. There she is involved in the Mars Express mission, a Mars orbiter and lander that is carrying new types of radar.

At JPL Ocampo was a member of the Advisory Council for Women, reporting directly to the head of JPL. In 1996 she received JPL's Advisory Council for Women Award for her outreach and community work. Ocampo is a member of numerous professional organizations, including the Society of Women Engineers where she was involved in a mentoring program for girls. In 1992 Ocampo received a Woman of the Year Award in Science from the Comision Femenil of Los Angeles. In 1994 she represented JPL at the Leadership Conference for Women in Science and Engineering in Washington, D.C. Although Ocampo has not realized her dream of becoming an astronaut and space shuttle mission specialist, she believes that the future of hu-mankind lies in space exploration and the establishment of colonies on the moon and Mars.

Selected writings


(With Thomas C. Duxbury and John D. Callahan) Phobos: Close Encounter Imaging from the Viking Orbiters, NASA, 1984.

(With B. A. Ivanov, D. D. Badukov, O. I Yakovlev, M. V. Gerasimov, Yu. P. Dikov, and K. O. Pope) "De-gassing of Sedimentary Rocks due to Chicxulub Impact: Hydrocode and Physical Simulations," The Cretaceous-Tertiary Event and Other Catastrophes in Earth History, Geological Society of America, 1996.

(With Kevin O. Pope and Alfred G. Fischer) "Ejecta Blanket Deposits of the Chicxulub Crater from Albion Island, Belize," The Cretaceous-Tertiary Event and Other Catastrophes in Earth History, Geological Society of America, 1996.


(With Kevin O. Pope and Charles E. Duller) "Mexican Site for K/T Impact Crater?" Nature, 1991.

(With Kevin O. Pope, Gary L. Kinsland, and Randy Smith) "Surface Expression of the Chicxulub Crater," Geology, 1996.

(With Francisco J. Vega, Rodney M. Feldmann, and Kevin O. Pope) "A New Species of Late Cretaceous Crab (Brachyura: Carcineretidae) from Albion Island, Belize," Journal of Paleontology, 1997.

(With Louis Friedman and John Logsdon) "Why Space Science and Exploration Benefit Everyone," Space Policy, 1998.

(With Fraser P. Fanale and 21 other co-authors) "Galileo's Multiinstrument Spectral View of Europa's Surface Composition," Icarus, 1999.



Bailey, Martha J., American Women in Science: 1950 to the Present, A Biographical Dictionary, ABC-CLIO, 1998, pp. 291-2.

Notable Scientists: From 1900 to the Present, Gale Group, 2001.

Olesky, Walter, Hispanic-American Scientists, Facts On File, 1998.


Hispanic, September 1996, p. 36.


"Adriana C. Ocampo," NASA, http://ltp.arc.nasa. gov/women/bios/ao.html (May 25, 2003).

"Adriana C. Ocampo," Women of NASA, (March 24, 2003).

"Adriana Ocampo," Profiles of Women at JPL, www. jpl.nasa.go/tours/women/ocampo.html (March 24, 2003).

"Chain of Impact Craters Suggested by Spaceborne Radar Images," Jet Propulsion Laboratory, www. jpl.nasa.gob/s19/news80.html (April 7, 2003).

"Earth-Shattering Impacts," Planetary Radio Show, (April 19, 2003).

"More Evidence Points to Impact as Dinosaur Killer," Stardust, 10.html (April 7, 2003).


Information for this profile was obtained through personal communications between Adriana Ocampo and Contemporary Hispanic Biography in May of 2003; and the Women of Hope/Latinas Abriendo Camino/12 Ground Breaking Latina Women, Films for the Humanities, 1996.

Margaret Alic

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