How does it feel to work with space dust? Ask this Colombian!

Colombian scientist Laura Chaves fell in love with geology but did not want to get into the extractive industries.

Chaves, a doctoral student in planetary science at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, is currently working with samples from the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa returned to Earth by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and their Hayabusa mission.

She studies a process called spatial alteration, that is, the chemical and microstructural changes in minerals on the surface of planetary bodies devoid of atmosphere, produced by the impact of micrometeorites and the irradiation of the solar wind.

“I am using different electron microscopy techniques to identify nanoscale signatures that may be evidence of spatial alteration in these samples,” she said.

In mid-December, JAXA confirmed that a sample from the Hayabusa2 mission had recovered samples from the asteroid Ryugu and Chaves hopes to work with those samples as well.


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Space samples

“Working with individual asteroid particles is as difficult as it sounds,” she said. “I work with particles the size of a micron, and handling, sample preparation and microscopic analysis is perhaps the most important challenge in my career as a scientist.”

Fortunately, Chaves had the opportunity to receive training in handling and handling small alien particles at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“I had the great opportunity to manipulate lunar microparticles collected during the Apollo missions where I learned the techniques I am currently using in my research,” she said.

From geology to planetary sciences

Chaves was born in Bogotá, Colombia and despite the desire to pursue a career in modern languages, she decided to study geology because at the time, an oil boom offered attractive salaries.

“This is how I ended up studying a BS in Geology at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia – Sede Bogotá,” she said. “In the first semester, I fell in love with geology, but at the same time, I realized that I don’t want to be involved in the oil industry.

“While looking for graduate opportunities involving mineralogy (the study of minerals), I found a book on astromineralogy and became interested in the subject,” she said.

In a sense, Chaves’ work could come full circle: spatial alteration studies allow for better characterization of asteroid surfaces, which could be relevant for future asteroid mining, as well as the detection of objects that could impact the Earth and a deeper understanding of the solar system. .

Space dreams

“One of my biggest dreams is that Colombia one day found its space agency to develop projects in the different fields of aerospace engineering, planetary sciences and astronomy,” said Chaves.

She says that many Colombian scientists and engineers from all over the world could contribute to the creation of a Colombian space agency, ”she said,“ I would be interested in starting the field of astromaterials in Colombia. “

But Chaves says that without a commitment from the government to increase funding for science, and especially space science, it is difficult to recruit Colombian professionals who are currently overseas.

“I believe that a Colombian space agency can bring many technological, industrial and economic benefits to the country,” she said.

Chaves is one of the growing number of Latin American women contributing to the fields of planetary science and astronomy. Another is geologist Millarca Valenzuela Picón who grew up in the heart of Chile’s Atacama Desert and spent decades unraveling the space secrets of ancient meteorites – she even has an asteroid named after her in recognition of her work.


MORE FORBESWhy do these scientists scour a Chilean desert in search of meteorites?

Colombian researcher Andrea Guzman Mesa also started with the desire to pursue a degree in modern languages, but is now a doctoral student in astrophysics at the University of Bern, studying the atmospheres of planets far from our solar system.

MORE FORBESWhat is the work of this Colombian exoplanet? It’s out of this world!

Guzman Mesa compares thousands of atmospheric models with observational data from large telescopes, to make predictions of what the atmospheres of these planets might be like.

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