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A Multi-Faceted View of Solar System Worlds

To Dr. Katherine de Kleer, science is at its best when diverse areas of study converge. Her career is an inspired case in point, drawing people and perspectives together to sharpen our understanding of the enormous, enigmatic cosmos.

Dr. Katherine de Kleer

When she joined the inaugural class of 51 Pegasi b Fellows (2017), Katherine had already been tracking the numerous volcanic eruptions on Io, one of Jupiter’s four large moons, to shed light on processes shaping our solar system. With new support, she employed a specialized radio interferometry technique to examine thermal emission from the varied terrains of Jupiter’s other large moons.

The experience encouraged Katherine to pursue new research pathways, develop her own taste for the questions that drive her research, and have the confidence to pursue them through her own expertise.

She realized that she likes “experimenting with new observational techniques using existing telescopes—looking at things in a new way that people haven’t done before,” she said.

As an assistant professor of planetary science and astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, Katherine leads a research group of undergraduate and PhD students as well as post-doctoral researchers, which allows her to pursue many research directions at once.

They share in an ongoing pursuit to understand everything from the geological activity and atmospheres of moons today, to the early processes at work during planet formation—which includes examination of asteroids. As remnants of the same planet formation processes that Earth and the other planets went through, asteroids harbor important clues, which Katherine’s team captures using observation and modeling techniques she adapted from those she applied to moons during her fellowship term.

Katherine’s interest in how objects are heated is a throughline of her research: “Heat is the thing that powers change,” she said. “What are the heat sources in the interiors of planets and moons? Where and how do objects melt in the early solar system to form cores and mantles?”

Such questions of heating mechanisms and heat budgets can provide important answers about the chemical evolution of planet-like objects writ large.

Although she still tracks Io’s volcanic activity—in fact, she now has a 10-year chronology of more than 75 volcanoes on that moon’s surface—Katherine continues to expand and diversify her scope of study, quite literally.

“I like using essentially all the wavelengths that are available, all the different types of telescopes that are available, and pointing them at the same object because they each give you a different piece of information.”

Her work at multiple observatories indeed spans wavelengths that range from the optical and near-infrared out to the radio. From this body of data she gleans insights about atmospheric emissions, surface reflectance and composition, mineral signatures, and thermophysical properties.

“If you want to put together a holistic understanding of what’s happening on the surface and in the atmosphere of an object, you need to consider all these different perspectives at once,” she said.

Katherine’s observations of aurorae on Jupiter’s moons are featured in a recent article in the New York Times.

Looking to the frontiers of planetary astronomy, Katherine is fascinated by the new observations being made of fledgling planetary systems, as well as the improved methods for studying the source materials of our solar system in precise detail. From meteorites in the lab to the makeup of asteroids to particle disks around distant stars, the opportunities abound for addressing the big question of how planets like ours form.

Her angle into this question is to study the composition of asteroids with incoming observations from JWST.

“All of these areas are advancing at once and they all are contributing to the same picture. When you have multiple angles like that, you can make more significant steps forward,” she said.

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