“It’s a really exciting time here at Princeton to have this effort and focus on space physics,” said Dr. Jamie Rankin, a researcher at Princeton. Rankin was appointed deputy director of science for the Voyager project — NASA’s longest-operating mission and the only spacecraft ever to explore interstellar space — in December 2022.
Rankin’s path to take the position was not linear. After studying physics and music as an undergraduate, she didn’t know what she wanted to do following graduation, so she took a gap year and joined a particle and observational physics research group.
Ironically, the most challenging aspect of getting a degree in both physics and music wasn’t the act itself but “convincing professors [she] could do it,” she said. Her physics professors had a difficult time understanding how a musician could grasp physics, while her music professors wondered what a physicist was doing studying music, Rankin recalled.
However, to Rankin, there are endless parallels between the two subjects. “Going into interstellar space requires so many things to go right,” she said, comparing the phenomenon to “a whole symphony orchestra coming together and playing flawlessly, and with so much diligence and hard work on the part of so many people.” She concluded, “both end up beautiful.”
Producing research and original work proved challenging for Rankin in both physics and music. A degree in music composition incited a number of questions for her — is it original work? Is it relevant? Is it interesting? She explained that the same problems arise with science research. “Instead of reading the textbook and solving the equations, the challenge is defining the textbook and defining the equations.”
After falling in love with the subject of observational physics during her gap year, Rankin decided to pursue graduate school. Growing up with few space-related learning opportunities in her home state of Utah, she was introduced to a whole new world of space physics when she was accepted to the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) and found a group of researchers studying cosmic rays. The group was led by Edward Stone, the scientist who led the Voyager project for 50 years. On the same day Rankin arrived at CalTech, Voyager 1 made history in 2012 as the first human-made object to reach interstellar space.
While at CalTech, Rankin worked on both Voyager technology and on the Parker Solar Probe, a modern version of the detectors on the Voyager used to measure cosmic rays. The principal investigator (PI) for the Parker Solar Probe, David McComas, is also Rankin’s PI at Princeton and recruited her to work on Princeton’s projects on mapping solar and wind patterns in the heliosphere.
Princeton’s space physics lab didn’t exist until July 2020, when it was started with Rankin as a major part. Rankin explained that it’s “really cool because a lot of other places in the world don’t uphold and upkeep this kind of lab. Anyone who’s interested is welcome.”
Rankin also teaches a lab class at Princeton every year, AST 250: Space Physics Laboratory I and 251: Space Physics Laboratory II, in which students work on collaborative class projects and contribute to instruments that will be used in space instrumentation. Rankin said that she values interdisciplinary work, particularly because she is both a scientist and musician, and emphasized that students in the class lab can be majors in any department.
Rankin told the ‘Prince’ that the instruments she researched as a graduate student are now in space, so to give people this opportunity is “so exciting,” she said.
Currently, the Princeton Space Physics Lab is building a way to simulate how the sun puts out wind and plasma patterns in order to test space instruments. They are also building space instruments as part of a project called IMAP (Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe). IMAP is the next generation of NASA’s IBEX (Interstellar Boundary Explorer) project, which Rankin worked on while at CalTech.
Rankin brings the same interdisciplinary approach that she takes in the Princeton lab to her role on the Voyager mission. As deputy director of science, she helps scientists tell the full story of what the project means for humanity. Most of the material that the Voyager probes measure doesn’t even reach earth, but “it is a gold mine of data,” according to Rankin.
Rankin believes an interdisciplinary approach using IBEX and Voyager data is the future of interstellar research. Using data from these can provide a 3D model of our heliosphere, she says, which has a shape that is currently being debated. Furthermore, the heliosphere blocks out so much radiation that scientists wonder if life would even exist without the shield. Not only will an interdisciplinary approach help answer these questions, but according to Rankin, it will allow scientists to “exit all the layers that solar material is studied through and see what the sun looks like from outside — like if another civilization were to look at our solar system what would they see — which can help us understand other systems.”
Rankin says that studying solar heliophysics has everything to do with the sun, but “more importantly, [it] has to do with living next to this star.” Essential questions guide her research. Will the sun explode one day? How do the sun's weather patterns affect Earth and cause blackouts like in the 1980s? How much is the heliosphere protecting us? How much will changes impact life on earth?
Beyond the implications for life on earth, Rankin explained that it is “surprising how practical [her research] is.” She also said that the community-building itself is satisfying to see, even without the returns of the science.
No spacecraft has ever lasted as long as the Voyager probe has. Because the project was launched in a time before modern computing and very few people are familiar with its ancient coding language, there is immense imperative for exploratory decision-making and leadership in order to respond to unique technical challenges. The sheer longevity of the Voyager requires a multigenerational approach, something inspiring as she finds value in “bringing many generations to work together.”
Rankin believes that the newer IMAP project and others should also be a “collaboration among generations.”
Kira Newbert is a News contributor for the ‘Prince.’
Abby Leibowitz is a News contributor for the ‘Prince.’
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