The Mysterious Fascination Of Asteroids: How Naomi Murdoch Became A Planetary Scientist

The Mysterious Fascination Of Asteroids: How Naomi Murdoch Became A Planetary Scientist

The Mysterious Fascination Of Asteroids: How Naomi Murdoch Became A Planetary Scientist 480 270 Asteroid Day Asteroid Day

Naomi Murdoch at Asteroid Day 2017

Naomi Murdoch has felt the draw of the wider cosmos since her childhood. “Growing up in high school, I always really liked physics,” she says, “And would always spend time contemplating the universe, especially with my big cousin at the time.”

When it came time to go to university, astrophysics was an obvious choice. Naomi chose the University of Edinburgh, UK, for both her undergraduate and masters degrees. While there, she studied some of the largest celestial objects in the universe: the supermassive black holes at the centres of whole galaxies. When these gravitational behemoths are devouring matter from their surroundings, they drive an intense emission of radiation from their surroundings, creating what’s known as an active galactic nucleus.

Image credit: Citizensinspace.org

But despite this promising start, astrophysics was not to be Naomi’s future. Instead, she was offered the chance to work as a young graduate trainee at the European Space Agency in Noordwijk, The Netherlands. Describing it as an “incredible opportunity”, she says, “It’s a programme that I would highly recommend to anyone finishing a master’s degree in Europe.”

At ESA, her role was to perform innovative research and help coordinate activities in the field of planetary defence. It was during this work that she became fascinated by the science of asteroids, particularly the number of things that remained unknown or poorly understood about them.

Moving to the Cote d’Azur observatory, France, and the Open University in the UK, she studied for a PhD. “My thesis looked at how the low gravity environment influences the surface of asteroids and their behaviour. After that, I guess I could say I became a planetary scientist,” she says.

Naomi Murdoch is now a researcher at the Institut Supérieur de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace (ISAE-SUPERAO), Toulouse, France. She has been involved in supplying instrumentation for two Mars missions: a seismometer to investigate the Red Planet’s interior as part of NASA’s InSight Mars lander, and a microphone to record the sounds of Mars for NASA’s Perseverance rover.

Near Earth Object Modeling and Payloads for Protection

Naomi maintains her interest in asteroids by being part of the Near Earth Object Modelling and Payloads for Protection (NEO-MAPP) project, which is funded by European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. “We’re developing the very first small seismic stations for asteroids, so we can look inside an asteroid to study its internal structure,” she says.

Another aspect of her work is to develop a better understanding of landing on asteroids.  This is needed because an asteroid’s low gravity environment makes the experience of landing significantly different from doing it on larger planetary bodies. As well as landings, such knowledge will also help planetary scientists interpret the data recorded during surface interactions more accurately.

Watch Naomi Murdoch speaking at:
2020 Asteroid Day LIVE – Preparing for the Future: Tools to Investigate Asteroids Panel
2020 ESA Asteroid Day Program – French
2017 Asteroid Day LIVE from Luxembourg – Research Collaborations
2017 Asteroid Day LIVE from Luxembourg – Asteroids: An Ancient Beauty

Click here to read more about her on the website.