Trailblazer of the Week

Rachel Klima

19 June 2020

A spacecraft trajectory can follow a complex path with multiple thrust arcs and flybys before capturing into a sustained orbit. Rachel Klima’s track toward becoming Lunar Trailblazer’s Deputy PI is especially similar.

“I have had a somewhat meandering path to this point in life, but I was definitely in love with space as a kid,” says Klima, who now works at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). “My high school years were turbulent, but I went to community college and fell back in love with math, astronomy, and geology.”

As Deputy PI, Klima has a key leadership role in science decision-making for the Lunar Trailblazer mission. She examines the current understanding of water on the surface of the Moon and leads the team effort to determine which target sites will be the most important to observe. This selection process ensures that the mission’s implementation will answer the team’s top science questions, such as, “What is the form of lunar water?” and “Where are operationally useful deposits of water on the Moon?” Foreseeing the answers to these questions is also a key part of Klima’s daily role.

“I also help work with the science team to prepare ourselves for how we will calibrate and analyze the data once it's returned,” Klima says. “I spend a lot of time looking at existing laboratory measurements to understand what else we can do here on Earth to prepare ourselves to analyze the data.”

Klima explains how this preparation must account for often unresolved data points.

“As a planetary scientist, you sometimes run into a case where you have a question that just cannot be answered with existing data, which is the case with a lot of our questions about the nature of surface water on the Moon,” she says, noting however that this is a humbling moment in space exploration. “It is incredibly rare to have the opportunity to fly a mission specifically designed to answer those questions, so I am absolutely thrilled to be able to be a part of Lunar Trailblazer and do just that.”

After attending the College of DuPage in Illinois, Klima achieved her first Master’s degree in earth and environmental science at the University of Chicago. She was pursuing her second graduate degree in planetary geology at Brown University when she embarked upon remote sensing techniques like spectroscopy.

“In graduate school I was extremely interested in how you could do geology remotely, so I was very fascinated by infrared spectroscopy,” recalls Klima. “My Ph.D. research focused on merging sample work and mineral chemistry with spectral measurements, to determine how much compositional information you could squeeze out of reflected light. I was fortunate to work on several missions, including the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3), in school, as well as others as I moved into my position as a staff scientist at APL.”

Having previously worked on such missions and M3, which discovered the presence of water on the Moon, Klima gained insight about how space missions and those like Lunar Trailblazer face operational and budget challenges.

“It's challenging to set formal requirements on a space mission, because you have to carefully consider any technical risks that might arise and how they might impact your operations,” explains Klima. “However, we also want to push ourselves to make sure the spacecraft has all critical capabilities to accomplish our science objectives.”

Additionally, Lunar Trailblazer has a budget about an order of magnitude lower than the amount typically given to a planetary mission of this class. Klima sees this as a compelling opportunity.

“It is really exciting to be a part of a mission which will hopefully break through some of the current barriers and pave the way for higher-risk, higher-reward missions.”

Klima details that a part of Trailblazer’s rewarding payload will be a greater understanding of the history of water within the Earth-Moon system.

“Lunar water may help us better understand the formation of the Earth-Moon system, and provides clues to other questions, like how and when did Earth get its water,” says Klima. “It is also critical to understand the lunar water cycle and inventory if we want to establish a sustained human or robotic presence on the Moon and beyond.”

When Klima isn’t deputizing, she can be found traveling, camping, biking, or experiencing the simple joy of doing nothing whatsoever.

“What I usually do when I'm not busy working is just delight in everyday life things like caring for my yard or cleaning,” she says. “I don't have a lot of spare time, so putting that time back into making my home environment peaceful feels particularly rewarding, and relaxes me.”

The delights of lunar exploration are still calling; if there were an additional bonus to Lunar Trailblazer’s findings, Klima exclaims that it would definitely be discovering “large, exposed pieces of lunar mantle that we could one day sample!”

Rachel Klima is Deputy PI and Trailblazer of the Week!

Trailblazer of the Week is an ongoing series showcasing the diversity of experience and expertise that supports the collective determination of the Lunar Trailblazer mission.

By Emily Felder
Emily Felder is a Pasadena City College student and Caltech intern working on science communication for the Lunar Trailblazer mission.