Louise Prockter

Principal Investigator, Trident Mission - Chief Scientist, Space Exploration Sector / Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL)


Lancaster University, Lancaster, U.K.

B.Sc. (Honors, 1st class) in Geophysics

Brown University, Rhode Island

M.S. in Planetary Geology

Brown University, Rhode Island

Ph.D. Planetary Geology

Where are you from?

I am from the United Kingdom and grew up in London. I moved to the north of England for my undergraduate degree, and then to the U.S. for graduate school. I currently live in Washington D.C., which I love.

What first sparked your interest in space and science?

My family didn't have a huge amount of money when I was growing up, so we would spend our weekends doing things like visiting art galleries and museums in London, which were free. Our favorites were the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum.

Although I grew up in the city, both my parents were big nature lovers. We went on a lot of nature walks in and around London, and our holidays were spent camping. So, from a very young age, my siblings and I had a sense of wonder about the world.

One of the places we visited regularly was Stiffkey Marsh, a beautiful salt marsh along the Norfolk coast, about 120 miles north of London. This rural coast is not built up and at night the sky is spectacular, with the Milky Way clearly visible. My parents would point out the constellations to us, and I soon learned to find Orion, Cassiopeia, the Pleiades, and how to locate the North Star using the Plough (or as it is called in the U.S., the Big Dipper).

How did you end up working in the space program?

I actually had an early career in sales and marketing and then went back to school for environmental science and geophysics at age 27. It wasn't until my final year at Lancaster University that I took two classes in planetary science. It was then that I had the "ah-ha!" moment – planetary science was what I wanted to do with my life. I had already decided to pursue a Ph.D., and my advisors in the U.K. (Lionel Wilson and John Shepherd) suggested I apply to programs in the U.S. since there are many more opportunities in planetary science over here. That is how I ended up in the planetary geology department at Brown University, initially studying volcanoes on Venus and comparing them to terrestrial mid-ocean ridge volcanoes.

During my second year, while finishing my master's degree at Brown, I was trying to decide in which direction I wanted to go. At this time, NASA's Galileo spacecraft had just gone into orbit around Jupiter and was starting to send back data from [Jupiter's moon] Ganymede. My colleagues Bob Pappalardo and Geoff Collins were looking at Ganymede's grooved terrain and trying to understand how it had formed.

In addition to the grooved terrain images, there were many images of dark terrain on Ganymede. No one was looking at these images because they were considered less interesting than those of the grooved terrain. I asked my advisor Jim Head, one of the co-investigators on the mission if I could look at these cratered dark areas on Ganymede. He said "yes," and I started mapping out just one little area of dark terrain. I became completely absorbed in this dark terrain and this study turned into my very first scientific paper.

Although I wasn't officially on the Galileo team (I was just one of the many graduate students working on the mission), I was allowed to go to team meetings. By attending these meetings I was able to meet a lot of people with whom I still work today. It was incredibly exciting and I realized that I wanted to spend the rest of my career involved in missions.

Galileo was such a challenging mission, with the main antenna failure and problems with the limitations of the tape recorder. We "cut our teeth" on having such limited resources: We had to squeeze every last drop of science out of every little bit of data – literally – that came down. The Galileo mission was incredibly good training for me. We all really learned to be flexible on that mission. That was also where I learned that space exploration is sometimes hard and things can go wrong.

Had I not had the opportunity to work on the Galileo mission, I probably wouldn't have been as attractive as a new hire when I applied to work at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) – I would have been like any other graduate student with a planetary geology degree.

My first position at APL was as a postdoc on the NEAR mission. The spacecraft should have gone into orbit around the asteroid Eros in February 1999, but due to technical issues, the orbit insertion was delayed for a year. This was perfect timing for me because it meant that I arrived at APL just a couple of months before NEAR's encounter with Eros, and therefore I was able to be involved as an imaging team associate throughout the mission. My job was to look at the hundreds of images that came down from the spacecraft each day, and then verify their quality.

After the NEAR mission concluded in 2001, I started working as deputy to the instrument scientist (Scott Murchie) on the camera on NASA's MESSENGER [mission to Mercury]: the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS). When Scott became principal investigator of the CRISM instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I took over as the instrument scientist on the camera in 2003. I learned a lot more about hardware, calibration, optical design, focal planes – you name it – than I had ever expected to from that position. Then, I moved into a deputy project scientist position on MESSENGER, and that mission ended on April 30, 2015 [with the spacecraft's impact on Mercury's surface].

I also worked for over a decade to get NASA's Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter's moon Europa off the ground. I was the deputy project scientist on Clipper for some years, I was working for APL in that role. I'm still on Clipper, I'm a co-investigator on the camera team.

In 2016, I left APL to become the director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. I left that job in August 2020 to return to APL.

A global color mosaic of Triton, created with images taken in 1989 by NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft during its flyby of the Neptune system.

Tell us about your current jobs. What do you do?

Throughout my career, I have been involved in robotic planetary missions, including Galileo, NEAR, MESSENGER, and Europa Clipper.

For the last few years, I've been working on a proposed NASA Discovery Mission to go to Neptune's moon Triton – a potential ocean world. The mission is called Trident. I'm the principal investigator (PI) of that mission concept. We were one of, I think, 18 concepts submitted to NASA and they picked four to compete against each other. Basically one or two of us will fly and we will find out soon whether we will fly or not.

If we get selected I will be responsible for ensuring that the science goals will be accomplished. I will need to keep the mission on schedule and on budget. Obviously, I have a lot of people working with me who have expertise in different areas, but it's my overall responsibility to make sure that that mission is successful and that we get to Triton. Then we get to answer some fundamental questions about Triton.

I'm also the Chief Scientist for the Space Exploration Sector at APL. I help to let the community know what APL is doing, science-wise. I also advise the head of the space exploration sector about which areas we should be focusing on for all NASA divisions. I help advise on which missions we should be going after.

So, I've got my mission path, my APL job, and then on top of that, I've got my scientific research path. My research is focused on the geomorphology and structural geology of solar system bodies, with an emphasis on icy satellites. I am particularly interested in surface history and evolution as evidenced by volcanism and tectonism. Examples of my research include understanding how surface grooves on Eros indicate interior structure, identification of the youngest volcanism on Mercury, and the discovery of plate tectonics on Europa. I use remote sensing data from planetary missions, primarily imaging data combined with topographic and spectral data.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

It's hard to pick just one, but some highlights include: going to the bottom of the ocean in the submersible Alvin; seeing my first paper in print, which made me feel like a "real" scientist for the first time; the excitement I felt when APL called to offer me a postdoc position (this was a job I wanted more than anything); going to Barrow, Alaska, for a fantastic Europa workshop run by the late, great Ron Greeley; and seeing the first stunning image of the previously unseen hemisphere of Mercury on MESSENGER's first flyby of the innermost planet – I was so thrilled that the image was perfect, and so relieved that it was exactly in the center of the field of view, as we had planned it!

MESSENGER Mercury flyby
This high-resolution mosaic of images shows Mercury as it appeared to MESSENGER as the spacecraft departed the planet on Jan. 14, 2008, following the mission's first flyby of Mercury.
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

More recently, when we found out we [the Trident team] were selected for the next round in the Discovery Program. It's very competitive and most mission concepts apply three or more times before they're selected. So that moment where we found we were one of the final four and now maybe we'll be selected to flight was pretty thrilling.

Trident Team Cheering
Louise Prockter, second from left, receives a call from NASA headquarters telling her and her leadership team that the Trident project has made it to the final four in the Discovery Program competition.

What advice you would give to others interested in a similar career?

Be tenacious. If you know you want to do something, go and find someone who will help you do it. I have benefited from having some amazing mentors. If the person you're working with isn't helping you along the path you want to be on, then go and find someone else who will. Don't be afraid to try and don't give up – be annoying until you get what you want. But do your homework as well – you'll get a better response. The worst that happens is someone doesn't respond, and the best that happens is you start this great connection with someone who could be useful to you for the rest of your life.

Also, you don't have to be a professor to be successful. There are many job opportunities in this field, especially for people with advanced degrees. We need good policy people. We need people who can help promote the importance of science and research to lawmakers. We need people at NASA Headquarters.

To work on missions, it really helps to be somewhere where there's someone doing mission work. You can now be a student and also work on a mission, which generally was not the case in the past, but now there are a lot of opportunities with such programs as the Mars Exploration Program and Discovery.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?

Go for it! I think a lot of us do things for the wrong reasons because we're good at something or were trying to please our teachers or parents or peers, but really it's not what we're passionate about. It's not what really makes us happy.

I did not know when I was in school what I wanted to do with my life. I had no idea. I didn't even know planetary science was a thing, so my career path is a little different than most people in my field. I did not start my undergraduate degree until I was 27. So this was my second career. I got my degree when I was 30. I got my Ph.D. when I was 35, then I was a post-doctorate, so I'm about 10 years behind most of my peers. But when I realized I wanted to planetary science – I really wanted to do it!

It's never too late to change your career path and do something different. If you're not happy and fulfilled in what you're doing, maybe it's not the right job for you. I was so lucky that I finally found the thing that made me truly happy. I think it's worth taking the time to find your passion.

What do you do for fun?

I'm a voracious reader and I like to travel. I do a lot of yoga.

This profile has been adapted in part from an interview conducted by Susan Niebur for the Women in Planetary Science website.

Where are they from?

Planetary science is a global profession.