Adriana Ocampo: NASA’s Asteroid Catcher

Updated: Mar 12

In our special World Space Week article, Esme Morgan explains the life and career of the amazing NASA scientist Adriana Ocampo.

Though we are often in search of hard facts, many scientists get their drive to learn through their imagination. Young Adriana Ocampo, born in 1955 in Columbia, was no different. Making “spacecrafts”out of kitchen utensils and using her dog as a co-pilot, Adriana plotted her journey to the stars. This ambition never left and she devoted herself to a career in planetary geoscience.

Adriana Ocampo

Adriana was the first person to discover the Chicxulub impact crater, also known as the landing spot of the famous asteroid that killed the dinosaurs! Using satellite imaging, she recognised that a circle of sinkholes were connected to the crater. The crater had eluded other scientists for decades but became the focus of Adriana’s Masters and PhD thesis; she also led six research expeditions studying the event.

Presently, Adriana Ocampo continues to lead in her field as a Science Program Manager at NASA Headquarters Science Mission Directorate. She works in the Planetary Science Division which runs the New Frontiers program with the goal of furthering the human race’s understanding of the Solar System. As the Lead Program Executive for the New Frontiers program, Adriana manages the Juno probe sent to Jupiter, the New Horizons mission which will be studying objects in the Kuiper Belt and the return journey of the asteroid sample OSIRIS-REX. Along with her contributions on Earth and across the Solar System, Adriana currently has a strong presence in our understanding of Venus. NASA’s partnership with the European Space Agency on the Venus Express mission, the Venus Exploration Analysis Group and Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency all have Adriana as the Lead Venus Scientist.

Adriana attests her success to her parents’ unconditional support of her chosen career. An environment where young scientists are supported in their curiosity is vital, more so for young girls. For her services to planetary science, Adriana has been awarded the Woman of the Year Award in Science among other accolades. Perhaps her most notable commendation is Pluto asteroid 177120 Ocampo Uria which, in her name, explores the vastness of space that she dreamt of as a girl. Everyone, regardless of gender, should have the opportunity to reach for the stars. Adriana Ocampo is one of the many inspirational women that will be celebrated during Space Week 2021, where more lives like hers can be held up to inspire the next generation of female scientists.

From SATNAV Issue 23, page 11, For World Space Week 2021

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