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Rising senior works with NASA to make sense of Pluto's chaotic terrain

Campus News | May 19, 2016

Katie Knight

(May 19, 2016)—One Carson-Newman University honors student just finished her first round of research on Pluto's surface for NASA's New Horizon's team. She detailed her work in a blog post on NASA's website.

Rising senior and physics major Katie Knight has been working with the New Horizons team, which recently sent a spacecraft to fly by Pluto and its five moons. The Knoxville native is among the first to research the closest images of Pluto to date, and is the only undergraduate to present results to the science team.

"It's like when you hear of a new opportunity you go in your head to that wildest dreams kind of place," Knight says. "This is what it was. It happened."

After reading the proposal for Knight's honor's project involving New Horizons, Carson-Newman Physics Professor Dr. Mike Seale emailed Southwest Research Institute Associate Vice President of Space Science and Engineering Dr. Alan Stern, asking whether the team could use help from a dedicated undergraduate.

Stern, one of Time Magazine's most influential people of the year, said "yes."

"Katie's been amazing. When she talks about this her eyes light up," Seale says. "She loves doing this and having this opportunity to work with cutting edge research in the field of planetary science."

Knight flew to Boulder, Colorado, in February for training, and by mid-March she had written a blog post about her research with the polygons of Pluto on NASA's website.

"It was crazy to meet these people I'd read about and wanted to be like, and there they are sitting across the conference room table from me wanting to know who I am," Knight says. "It was the most overwhelming thing, but really cool."

Knight researches Pluto's terrain, specifically blocks on the surface. She analyzes the size, shape and volume to learn new information about the surface, such as its age.

"To have these connections in the future, possibly with other NASA institutions, opens up more opportunities for future students," Seale says. "Having them see one of our students do something like this—it's empowering for them."

After presenting her first round of research to the New Horizons team, Knight successfully presented her honors thesis prospectus to Carson-Newman faculty at her hearing in late April. She will continue to work with the New Horizons team until at least December as she completes her undergraduate degree.

To view Katie's blog post, visit: https://blogs.nasa.gov/pluto/2016/03/07/the-polygons-of-pluto/