March 24, 2020
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For most people, getting through a typical day at the office isn’t exactly rocket science — unless you’re Beau Bierhaus ’95, a former Kenyon physics major now working at Lockheed Martin in Colorado. As part of the team behind NASA’s OSIRIS-REx project, Bierhaus has spent 15 years designing a spacecraft capable of harvesting samples from an asteroid and planning how to get the craft to the 1,600-foot-wide space rock, formally called 101955 Bennu.
After the OSIRIS-REx craft reached Bennu in December, Bierhaus’s attention shifted to keeping the delicate machine in working order as it executes its mission and prepares to return to earth in 2023.
Sarah Jean McPeek ’19, who recently graduated from Kenyon summa cum laude with highest honors in biology, and whose interests in science, writing and journalism extend to her “Kenyon Kernel” podcast and a literary journal, “Lyceum,” spoke to Bierhaus about his career earlier this year during spring semester.
What motivates you to study astronomy, and why does your particular field hold so much excitement for you?
I think the night sky is a fundamental component to human experience, and perhaps even human evolution. Yet general awareness of the night sky is increasingly vague and hazy as light pollution has drastically altered our perception of what “night” means. Our disconnect from the night sky in the modern world is a sharp contrast to the history of life on this planet, especially the emergence of modern human beings.
Until the advent of constant lighting at night, when the sun went down, the world went dark, and the night sky took center stage. Half of every human being’s life occurs without the sun in the sky. Think of how many ancient civilizations had incredibly rich depictions of, and detailed understanding of, the night sky and the correlation to seasons. The night sky was just as essential to human existence as was the daytime sky, and so it was just as important to understand the enormous information content of the moon, stars and planets as it was to understand events during daytime hours.
With the development of modern astronomy, solar physics and planetary science, we can enrich our historical understanding of the night sky with ever more detailed knowledge of the Earth’s place in our solar system, the broader galaxy and ultimately the entire universe.
What has been your greatest challenge in working on this mission, or the strangest experience you’ve had as a part of this multi-year project?
The biggest challenges during the development phase of OSIRIS-REx were the things about the asteroid we didn’t know. We had the good fortune to observe the asteroid with a variety of ground- and space-based telescopes, so we actually had a pretty good handle on things like its size and rotation rate, both of which are important properties when designing a mission to collect a sample. However, there were a number of characteristics we didn’t know, the most important of which related to the mechanical properties of the surface and the distribution of rocks and boulders.
Those are also important properties when designing hardware that has to interact with the surface to collect a sample, and preserve spacecraft safety at the same time. We had to make some well-reasoned estimates of surface properties based on what we’ve seen on other asteroids. You can’t design a mission that would handle every possible scenario — that would cost way too much and take way too long.
There have been a number of surprises, including the fact that particles are ejected from the surface by some process and that the surface is rockier than we expected, so we’re making some real-time adjustments to mission plans. Fortunately, the spacecraft is performing extremely well and can handle the true Bennu in addition to our hypothesized Bennu.
What advice would you give to current Kenyon students thinking about a career in the sciences?
First, take full advantage of your learning opportunities within your science major. Lectures and labs are essential; they give you the basic tools, building blocks and language needed to understand the architecture of physics, chemistry and biology. Do not be shy about engaging your professors if you don’t understand a concept, or if you discover something that sparks your mind and you want to pursue it further. This is the foundation you’ll need for graduate school or whatever path in science you take after Kenyon.
Second, take full advantage of the liberal arts environment at Kenyon. Take classes well outside your science major, be forced to think in different ways, be immersed in reading and writing and music, and learn to communicate. A good scientist not only has strong analytical skills, but also is creative. Keep your brain malleable and challenged. It is true that the more ways you can think about a problem, the better chance you have to solve the problem.
Also, a huge part of a scientist’s career is writing proposals to get funding, writing research papers and presenting results at conferences. These tasks require knowledge of the science, but they also require the ability to write well, speak well and listen well. A scientist should be just as comfortable writing and speaking as spending time in the lab or in front of a computer.