Dr. Heidi Hammel didn’t have lifelong dreams of being an astronomer. It wasn’t until her sophomore year in college, when she took her first course in the subject, that she began looking to the sky to try to answer the fundamental question, what is the fate of the universe?
Likening being an astronomer with being an explorer she explains that she gets to travel to places no one else can, all without leaving the Earth. With degrees from MIT and the University of Hawaii her post-doctoral work was at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory after which she returned to MIT, where she spent nearly nine years as a Principal Research Scientist.
With extensive experience with the Hubble Telescope she was selected to lead the team that studied the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter in July 1994, with a specific focus on the atmospheric response to the collisions. In the same year, while studying Neptune, she discovered that its Great Dark Storm had disappeared sometime after it had been first observed by the Voyager spacecraft in 1989.
The next year she joined the Space Science Institute in Colorado as co-Director of their research branch with her primary work focusing on outer planets and their satellites. More recently, while working with a colleague it was discovered that Uranus’ nine main rings comprise a single layer of particles, something not found in other rings and they also found an 11th ring around Uranus. Since 2011 she has been the Executive Vice President of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy while continuing her work at SSI.
Hammel has said that she loves to be able to look into space and observe things that maybe no other human has even seen. Her research has earned her awards like the 1996 Harold C. Urey Prize, her outreach in science communication has earned her awards like the Carl Sagan Medal, and for encouraging young women to follow non-traditional career paths she was awarded the 1996 “Spirit of American Women” National Award. She has been profiled in Newsweek and Discover and has an asteroid named in her honor.
Written by Angela Goad