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Out of This World

For as long as she can remember, Aileen Yingst wanted to be a space scientist. Her desire started around the age of 3, with a sticker book about stars.

“I remember the book showed objects in the solar system in orbit, which looked like it was some sort of physical thing,” said Dr. Yingst, a member of Brunswick-Topsham DAR Chapter, Brunswick, Maine. “I wondered if people lived near these orbits and if they did, if they could touch them.”

She has since moved on to other questions about the universe—such as, “What can Mars tell us about life on Earth?”

After majoring in physics and astronomy in college, Dr. Yingst went on to earn master’s and doctorate degrees in geological sciences from Brown University. Today she’s a geologist and senior scientist at the nonprofit Planetary Science Institute, a research institute based in Tucson, Ariz., that works with NASA to provide science support for its space exploration missions. Dr. Yingst is a scientist on the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s mission for the space probe Dawn, which orbited the asteroid Vesta for a 14-month period in 2011 and 2012, and is currently orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres.

Today, she works with NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory to help develop missions for the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in August 2012.

And, thanks to modern technology, she does much of this work from her home office in Maine.

A typical day actually starts the night before, when data from the previous day on Mars gets downloaded, which Dr. Yingst reviews for cues that the next day’s mission can proceed as planned. The following morning, with those plans being executed some 34 million miles away, she and a team of scientists and engineers start planning future missions.

“It’s a very complex task to decide what the rover is going to do each day and how it’s going to do it,” she said.

When she’s not on rover shift, she’s doing research on the rover’s data. “It’s really not that different from what other geologists do,” she said. “My field work just happens to be on another planet.”

She sometimes travels to remote locations, such as a Utah desert, to test experiments before executing them on Mars or as part of a rover exploratory mission on any planet.

“There are a lot of things to test before you even consider doing science in space,” she said. “We need to know what instruments to use, what not to use and the best questions to ask. We have to make sure every move the rover makes is absolutely necessary; otherwise we’re wasting resources.”

Some work days end at 5 p.m.; other days she doesn’t leave her office until 1 a.m.

“We are beholden to when Mars can talk to us, because of where it is in its orbit,” she said.

Dr. Yingst said she pinches herself almost daily thinking about what these NASA missions have accomplished.

“We are pushing the envelope of what humans can achieve, we are gaining a better understanding of our own planet by studying other planets, and we are inspiring kids with the work that we do,” she said. “Every day when I start a new shift, I remind my team that we have the best jobs in the world—we work on Mars. What more could you ask for?”

In her free time, Dr. Yingst enjoys being outside with her family, which includes husband, Ross, and teenage children, Joshua and Rebecca. She also enjoys singing, water-skiing, cross-stitching and exploring her family history.

“As a scientist, I appreciate the fact that my work is based on what has come before me,” she said. “And if I can’t learn from that work, then I’m not a very good scientist. I feel the same way about my ancestors, whose lessons on loyalty and freedom and taking care of others are still shaping our present and future.”

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