Professor Fran Bagenal's Passion for Jupiter

Professor Fran Bagenal's Passion for Jupiter - Fran Bagenal

When NASA’s Juno spacecraft goes into orbit around Jupiter on July 4 2016, it will be the pinnacle of Frances Bagenal’s career in astrophysics and planetary science.

This impressive career found its launch pad at Lancaster whilst, as an undergraduate, her first academic paper was published.

Now a world expert on Jupiter, Professor Bagenal is based at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where her probing mind takes her into the furthest reaches of the outer solar system - to the largest planet Jupiter, building up a picture of how the magnetic fields of these planets interact with its moons and charged particles. She is also co-investigator on NASA’s New Horizons project, which brought back stunning images of the dwarf planet Pluto in summer 2015 after a nine-year journey to the outer solar system. 

However her Lancaster undergraduate paper looking at magnetic storms in the upper atmosphere, was the key to gaining her a job after graduation on the Voyager Plasma Science team in 1977, during a study year at MIT in the USA. It has unlocked the doors to her involvement as a plasma scientist in many more missions since then - Voyager,  Galileo, Deep Space 1, New Horizons and Juno. 

'That paper I did at Lancaster definitely got me onto the Voyager team,' says Bagenal. 'Once on the team, I learned to talk the talk and gained the experience to give me access to a career I could not have imagined in planetary sciences, based on the groundwork of Lancaster’s rigorous physics teaching.' 

Bagenal did not set out to have a career in astrophysics. Brought up near Cambridge with musician parents, she had enjoyed watching the Apollo moon landings on TV and the BBC Horizon programmes, but her original interest was in the earth’s tectonic plates. She chose to study at Lancaster because it was a new institution and she disliked the ‘fuddy duddy’ atmosphere she encountered when she visited her brother studying in Cambridge. She set out on a degree in Environmental Science and Geophysics, but then found her interests needed a greater knowledge of physics. 

From the moment she arrived for Freshers week, she realised she was going to be happy as she wandered between the stalls offering rock climbing and caving. The Lancaster University Speleological Society became the centre of her social life. She made friends who are still friends to this day. 

Academically she encountered knowledge that opened up her mind to the possibilities of looking beyond the tectonic plates and into space. She did her undergraduate thesis on plotting magnetic storms in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, which gained her a publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research: 'The good thing about Lancaster is that they just let me get on with it,' she says. 

After graduation from Lancaster and her one-year stint at MIT, she decided to stay on there to do a PhD in Earth and Planetary Sciences, followed by five years post-doctoral research at Imperial College London’s Space Physics Group. The Thatcher lack of investment in space research in the UK persuaded her to go back to the USA. As she was preparing for departure from London, she received an email saying that Boulder Colorado was looking to fill a faculty position in the physical sciences. As a keen skier and climber, with a climber friend living in Colorado who is now her husband, she decided to risk taking the job, and has been there ever since. 

Her specialist areas are research in the fields of space plasmas and planetary magnetospheres.  

She has been involved in the Pluto mission from the beginning, after meeting the principal investigator Dr Alan Stern, then a student. Gradually, she became intrigued and finally hooked on Pluto. It took 12 years to put together a mission and a further 12 years for the space craft to reach the planet.  The astonishing pictures of Pluto beamed back to Earth this in summer 2015 were a surprise and delight to her. She says: 'Seeing them amazed and thrilled me, but It also puzzled me - what’s happening on this little planet and how did it get to be so complex? 

Jupiter is Frances Bagenal’s real passion and she has written the definitive textbook on the subject in 2004. The arrival of the Juno mission data back to earth next year is a long-awaited day for her. She says: 'When Juno passes over the poles of Jupiter on July 4 2016 we will get our first view of the turbulent polar winds, bright auroral emissions and detect the electrical currents that flow along Jupiter’s strong magnetic field into the atmosphere. This will tell us how the intense aurora are generated - testing our ideas about how such processes works - are they similar to Earth or completely different?' 

Whilst digesting the Juno results may take time, they will also be important for other missions to Jupiter such as the European Space Agency’s JUICE mission exploring the icy moons of Jupiter and NASA’s planned mission to Europa. 

Bagenal is clear that space missions are not just about exploration of space, but have practical applications here on earth.  She says: 'We’ve sent thousands of satellites into space around the Earth and learnt in gory detail how the Earth’s system works. Applying such theoretical understanding to a totally different environment - such as Jupiter - tests these concepts and pushes our thinking. The extreme demands of exploration of deep space drives technological advances that spill into everyday life - leading to the development of small, lightweight, energy-efficient equipment.' 

Looking ahead at future missions leaves no room for thoughts of retirement - she’s clear her work is too much fun. She does however acknowledge Lancaster’s role in her career progress. 'It was the solid training in physics, the curiosity and encouragement to ask questions, but also the flexibility of what was a new institution, which allowed me to grow up.'