From Plasma Science to Dwarf Planets: Fran Bagenal

Rock climbing is one of Fran Bagenal’s hobbies. Credit: NASA Solar System Exploration

Originally from England, Fran Bagenal was inspired by the Apollo missions as a child – but it was when her brother invited her to a lecture by Carl Sagan at Cambridge University that her passion for space really took off. Later, she took an internship at MIT working with the Voyager Plasma Science Team, and since then her work with NASA has continued.

Bagenal is now a professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She has worked as a plasma scientist on numerous missions, and is currently a Co-Investigator on NASA’s New Horizons mission to the outer Solar System. New Horizons is set to encounter Pluto and Charon in July of 2015. Little is known about these distant celestial bodies, but astrobiologists hope these ancient objects could provide clues about the formation and evolution of our Solar System.

In an interview with Women in Planetary Science, Bagenal gave this advice to students interested in a career in space sciences:

An artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft as it visits Pluto in 2015. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

You need to think about what you like doing most. Is it digging through the data to find the nugget you know is there? Is it developing a model and seeing the science evolving in progressively complex plots? Is it discussing with a team how to implement a set of measurements? Yes, grades are important. Yes, publications are important. But also, contrary to common misconception, getting along with people is also important — perhaps as important as solving big equations.


In July, Bagenal served as a Program Committee Chair for a conference to discuss our current understanding of the Pluto system in preparation for the arrival of New Horizons. "The Pluto System on the Eve of Exploration by New Horizons: Perspectives and Predictions" was held at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md. Scientists talked about everything Pluto – from the history of Pluto studies, to the primary questions we would like to answer about the dwarf planet and its moons. Participants also presented ideas on how ground-based telescopes could be used to get the most out of upcoming New Horizons encounter. Information about the conference outcomes can be found here.

As part of this science videocast from the University of Colorado Boulder, Bagenal discusses Pluto and the New Horizons mission:

New Horizons is not the only mission that Bagenal is involved with. Her speciality as a plasma scientist has proven valuable for a number of planetary and deep space destinations.

Bagenal began her career on NASA’s first mission to Jupiter – the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. Now, she is also taking part in NASA’s return to the giant planet. The Juno mission to Jupiter launched in 2011, and will arrive at our solar system’s largest planet in 2016. Below is a public lecture given by Bagenal for the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at CU Boulder.