Adriana Ocampo, Colombian Planetary Geologist
Adriana Ocampo was born on January 5, 1955 in Barranquilla, Colombia and was later raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is one of three daughters of Victor Alberto Ocampo, an engineer, and Teresa Uria de Ocampo, a marine biologist. Her parents gave their utmost support to fulfill her desires to study science, especially when they would occasionally catch her turning her dolls into astronauts or looking at stars in the night sky. When she turned 14, Ocampo’s family immigrated to the United States, and after her junior year in 1973, she landed a summer job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where she continued to work part-time until college. She graduated from California State University and earned her B.S. in Geology in 1983 then later pursued her M.S. degree in Planetary Geology from California State University, Northridge, in 1997. Finally, she finished off with a Ph.D. in Planetary Science at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.
In 1980, Ocampo worked in a multi-mission image processing laboratory that culminated in a publication. She became a member of the team for the Viking program, where she analyzed and produced images of Mars’ satellites, Phobos and Deimos. These were published by NASA in 1984 and were later used to plan the Soviet Phobos mission. In this mission, the team detected 100 km down the atmosphere of Venus, which was helpful in studying the planet’s “night side.” The team constructed these findings with resolutions 6 times better than those of Earth-based telescopes.
In 1991, Ocampo’s research proposing that an area around Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula could have been the site of a giant crater that formed 66 million years ago led to the discovery of the Chicxulub impact crater — a catastrophic meteor strike that most likely wiped out the dinosaurs and other species that were once on Earth. She later led the six research expeditions regarding this site. At NASA, she served as the lead program executive for New Frontiers, working on a Juno mission to Jupiter, the asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-REx, and the New Horizons mission to Pluto.
From January 1995 to 1998, Ocampo led expeditions at the Exobiology Program of NASA’s Office of Space Science and The Planetary Society of Pasadena, which was held in Belize. Small particles that resembled green glass (later discovered as tektites) were found in the area. These particles formed from the exposure to high temperatures, which researchers linked to the other ejecta sites in Mexico and the Carribean. In 2005, Ocampo became a member of Galileo’s mission team and led the near-infrared mapping spectrometer (NIMS) project as the science coordinator for flight project mission operations. This was launched back in 1989 en route to Jupiter, and Ocampo was in charge of scheduling the observations of Jupiter’s moon, Europa and leading the analysis of data. Together with her colleagues, the findings were published in the Icarus journal entitled Galileo’s Multi Instrument Spectral View of Europa’s Surface Composition.
In 1992, Ocampo received the Woman of the Year Award in Science from the Comisión Femenil in Los Angeles. She was also awarded the Advisory Council for Women Award at JPL in 1996 and the Science and Technology Award from the Chicano Federation a year later. Asteroid 177120 Ocampo Uria, which was discovered by the American astronomer Marc Buie at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in 2003, was named after Ocampo herself. She was also named National Hispanic Scientist of the Year in 2016.
“You need perseverance to realize your dreams.” Adriana Ocampo continues to serve as an individual of great impact, for she relentlessly strives to pursue her greatest of dreams. Although Ocampo has not realized that her dream of becoming an astronaut and space shuttle mission specialist has officially come true, she believes that the future of humankind lies in space exploration and the establishment of colonies on the moon and on Mars.
by Justina Torres
American Institute of Physics. (2017, January 15). Adriana Ocampo. Physics Today. Retrieved from physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/pt.5.031391/full/.
Contemporary Hispanic Biography. (2020, August 11). Ocampo, Adriana C.: 1955 — : Planetary Geologist. Retrieved from https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/ocampo-adriana-c-1955-planetary-geologist.
Kathuria, C (2017, December 15). Tech Women: Meet Adriana Ocampo: Science Program Manager, NASA Headquarters. SheThePeople TV. Retrieved from https://www.shethepeople.tv/news/tech-women-meet-adriana-ocampo-science-program-manager-nasa-headquarters/.
Kletetschka, G., Ocampo, A., Zila, V., & Elbra, T. (2020). Electric discharge evidence found in a new class of material in the Chicxulub ejecta. Scientific Reports. doi: 10.10.1038/s41598–020–65974–2.
Hopping, L.J. (2006). Space Rocks: The Story of Planetary Geologist Adriana Ocampo. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/11553.