Former MIT professor Lindy Elkins-Tanton is reaching for the stars—literally. She is the principal investigator for Psyche, a NASA mission that will explore an unusual metal asteroid known as 16 Psyche.
The mission does not launch until 2023, but preparations have begun in collaboration with faculty in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). Professors Benjamin Weiss and Maria Zuber wrote a paper about the asteroid with ElkinsTanton that was the basis for the team’s selection for NASA’s Discovery Program. MIT professor Richard Binzel is also a team member.
At MIT, Elkins-Tanton earned SB and SM degrees in geology and geochemistry with a particular concentration on how planets form. Then she detoured from academia to the business world before becoming a college lecturer in mathematics in 1995.
“I realized that in academia, you have this incredible privilege of always being able to ask a harder, bigger question, so you never get bored, and you have the opportunity to inspire students to do more in their lives,” says Elkins-Tanton. She returned to MIT to earn a PhD in geology and geophysics, and for the next decade after completing that degree, she taught first at Brown and then as an EAPS faculty member.
Since 2014, Elkins-Tanton has been professor and director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. She has been revamping the undergraduate curriculum to give it more of an MIT flavor, bringing current research into the classroom and having students tackle real-world problems. This approach has helped her transmit excitement about the field to her students.
Elkins-Tanton also draws on business skills that she says are quite useful for scientific collaboration: negotiating, making a compelling pitch, and knowing how to build a team that works well. She is applying those skills, along with her management and leadership experience, as the second woman to lead a deep space mission.
Psyche represents a compelling target for study because scientists theorize that it was an ordinary asteroid until violent collisions with other objects blasted away most of its outer rock, exposing its metallic core. This core, the first to be studied, could yield insights into the metal interior of rocky planets in the solar system.
“We have no idea what a metal body looks like. The one thing I can be sure of is that it will surprise us,” Elkins-Tanton says. “I love this stuff—there are new discoveries every day.”
Anti-aging drugs are being tested as a way to treat covid
Drugs that rejuvenate our immune systems and make us biologically younger could help protect us from the disease’s worst effects.
A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of
The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.
It will soon be easy for self-driving cars to hide in plain sight. We shouldn’t let them.
If they ever hit our roads for real, other drivers need to know exactly what they are.
Crypto is weathering a bitter storm. Some still hold on for dear life.
When a cryptocurrency’s value is theoretical, what happens if people quit believing?
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.