For decades, space scientists could only speculate about what the surface of Mars looked like. It wasn’t until 1965 that NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft sent the first images of the red planet back to Earth. Today, spacecrafts on and around Mars continue to capture images that help the agency understand what our outer worlds look like.
Imagine being the person who sees these images before anyone else. That person is Candice Hansen-Koharcheck, the deputy principal investigator of the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and one of the co-investigators on NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter. Over her 40 years at NASA, Hansen-Koharcheck has been present for the capturing of some of the most iconic images of our solar system.
These photos are aesthetically stunning, but they also contain valuable scientific data. Before the HiRISE camera started documenting Mars in detail in 2006, scientists believed the planet was a barren, flat, lifeless world. “When we were designing the camera, the conventional wisdom was that Mars was monochrome,” Hansen-Koharcheck says. “It had this reddish tint everywhere, because everybody knew the global dust storms would redistribute that dust everywhere, and it would mask all the color on the surface.”
But the photos Hansen-Koharcheck got back from her camera revealed a blue Mars with a snakeskin-like terrain, active dunes, and rippling hills. “Who knew it was going to look like that?” she says. “This is a gorgeous planet, and it’s not all monochrome red.”
There’s no doubt Hansen-Koharcheck has one of the coolest jobs in planetary science, but it took hard work to get where she is now. In the summer of 1979, Hansen-Koharcheck was tasked with making sure the Voyager 1 spacecraft captured some of the first photos of Jupiter and its moons. In preparation for the first flyby, she’d pull all-nighters watching the camera feed, taking naps in in her baby-blue 1955 Chevy in the parking lot of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The long-awaited Jupiter encounter required all hands on deck. “We had to figure out what time to take the picture, how many different filters to use, what the exposures should be,” she says. “It was really a lot of work and with fairly rudimentary tools.”
Voyager took thousands of images during the flyby, but the most special image for Hansen-Koharcheck was the first picture of Jupiter’s ring. “No one had ever gotten a picture of it, and nobody knew for sure it was even there,” she says. Scientists had posited that Jupiter had some kind of ring, as most large planets do, but until that picture, no one knew for sure.
“When that image came in, [an engineer] came running downstairs, finds me, huffing and puffing, and he says, ‘Candy, what have you done? You broke the camera!’” she recalls. “I took one look at the image and went, ‘Oh my God, it’s the ring.’”
In another historic discovery, while working on the Cassini mission, Hansen-Koharcheck and her team captured an image from a flyby of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The picture revealed that the moon was erupting water into space, and the material released from the moon’s icy surface was creating Saturn’s outermost ring.
“Being in that room where everybody was putting the picture together and all of a sudden realizing, holy crap, there’s a big eruption,” Hansen-Koharcheck says. “It’s enough to supply the E ring. All of a sudden, just all these pieces fell into place, and it was very exciting.”
Today, Hansen-Koharcheck splits her time between studying the images from Mars and those from Jupiter, as part of her job on NASA’s Juno mission. She’s part of a small team that operates the camera called JunoCam, and she is the first person to put raw images from Jupiter online.
As part of the project, Hansen-Koharcheck calls on amateur astronomers to upload their own telescopic images and data of Jupiter, which help inform NASA’s mission planning on which images of the planet to acquire. Even though scientists now know what Jupiter looks like, more detailed images offer a more complete picture of the planet’s makeup.
“To me, these places have gone from being points of light in the sky to being real places,” Hansen-Koharcheck says. “That transition happened in the last 50 years. How do you put your arms around something that huge? I guess I’m just speechless. I consider myself one of the luckiest people on this planet.”