An emerging star in the field of planetary science, Lucas McClure takes us through a day in the life of a researching graduate student; the excitement, the responsibilities, and the fascinating science going on right here in Flagstaff, Arizona. Lucas is a graduate student in the Department of Astronomy and Planetary Science at Northern Arizona University, with a Bachelor of Science in Physics with an astronomy concentration from the University of Tennessee. Outside of academia, Lucas enjoys spending time outdoors and most definitely with his dog Mo. 

“Knowing that I have the ability to chisel away at the perimeter of knowledge that humanity has… It’s cool that I am contributing to that” Working under Dr. Joshua Emery at NAU, Lucas studies a specific body of asteroids in the main belt (the collection of over 1 million asteroids in between planets Mars and Jupiter), called the Palona-Eulalia family. By studying the smallest of these asteroids within this family, planetary scientists can also better understand small Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs). Lucas specifically uses spectroscopy to understand the surface characteristics of these asteroids, and in the future hopes to do thermophysical modeling.

What got you interested in planetary science and this research?

Growing up in a rural part of Tennessee, Lucas didn’t visit art galleries or science centers as a kid but was captivated with the humanities and sciences, and learned about these fields from his parents through the stories they told. Seeking more of the “truth” as he called it, he says, “Astronomy was the greatest true story that I have ever heard.” At first, he pursued documentary filmmaking, as a way to continue to capture and chase after the truth, specifically the stories that science tells in nature, space, and the universe. Documentary filmmaking and his exploration of the subject of space, planets, and asteroids led him to become an astronomer; a storyteller in science. He never looked back. Eventually, he became increasingly interested in planetary science and started his own research. 

“NEAs are near and dear to our hearts, near and dear to the planet, and near and dear to destroying the planet.”

What are near-earth asteroids and why are they important to us?

 With new spacecraft like NASA’S DART mission to test if it is possible to physically redirect an asteroid via impact, it is also good to understand the orbits of these asteroids as well as their surface characteristics, and knowing what these asteroids are composed of can help us create defensible solutions in the future.

What spurred your field of study?

 Dr. Joshua Emery studies asteroid Bennu, an NEA that was visited by the NASA Osiris-Rex spacecraft. After in-depth conversations and working with Dr. Emery, Lucas decided to direct his own research towards NEAs and the solar system. He became interested in the connections that asteroids bring to life by looking at the orbital history of main belt asteroids to NEAs. With thermophysical modeling, Lucas can use something called thermal inertia (the measurement of how slow or fast a material can reach the same temperature as the surrounding environment) to make connections between main-belt asteroids and NEAs. I asked Lucas if it was daunting to come up with his own research question as an emerging researcher. “I thought it was going to be daunting at first, but I actually found it liberating.” Now he can focus on approaching questions with precision.

What was it like using the Lowell Discovery Telescope for the first time? 

For many researchers in astronomy or astronomy-related field, getting time on a world-class observation telescope is no small feat. The goal of using telescope observation for Lucas is to take photometric data of the smallest members of the Palona-Eulalia asteroid family to determine the types of these asteroids. Planetary Scientists then have the potential for these small objects to be confirmed/not confirmed part of the family given a set of parameters related to asteroid types. Lucas and Dr. Emery use the LMI camera (Large Monolithic Imager) on the Lowell Discovery Telescope. Through trial and error, Lucas and Dr. Emery figured out how to use the software associated with the telescope. Finding tiny asteroids is extremely difficult and lots of checking and rechecking data are involved in order to make sure the data taken shows what is truly there. Because of COVID-19, most telescope observation is done remotely. For Lucas, this time was “relaxing and fun” (no cold temperatures here!).

With telescope observation, there is always the possibility to discover something new. I asked Lucas if he had thought about the possibility of discovering a new asteroid out in the Solar System. For Lucas, it’s not entirely out of the question, and that in the event that he did discover one, he told me he would name it after a family member. 

Lucas also shared ways to experience the night sky and recommended visiting the NAU campus telescope, called the Barry Lutz Telescope, on public nights. Anyone can attend and it is free!

Do you have a favorite asteroid or planetary body? 

There are hundreds of thousands of known asteroids and some have names — not just an ID #. Therefore, Lucas’s favorite is the asteroid 9349Lucas, a magnitude 15.9 (pretty faint) asteroid. However, some other objects like Bennu and Itokawa (asteroids), and Pluto and Makemake (dwarf planets) were up there on the list. Out of the major planets, Neptune is his favorite, being far away, having a dark spot, and has not been observed much throughout space exploration history. Lucas also is captivated by the history of Neptune’s discovery. 

“Everyone can ‘do’ science, but many people think that they can’t. It’s rewarding to have positive student interactions.”

What are the challenges and benefits of doing research as a grad student? 

 As a graduate student, Lucas finds that instructing students in the classroom is one of the most rewarding parts of his program. He particularly loves engaging with students to problem solve, and empowering others to do science.

Tell me about the challenges you see as a scientist with communicating to the public? 

“Misinformation” is really difficult to combat and is a major problem to overcome. Approaching misinformation as a scientist, and meeting people where they are is a key approach that Lucas takes when communicating to the public about scientific research and discovery. “People don’t always have time to read a body of literature and to do the research.” Sometimes the gaps in educational experiences can be difficult to juggle as an educator: being able to balance different groups of students is something to pay attention to and take care of. Support and empowerment are paramount, and Lucas finds that redirecting the enthusiasm that student has, towards a more scientific approach, is a powerful approach he uses in and outside of the classroom. 

Why is outreach important to you? 

 Connecting people with a field that they may normally distance themselves from, and having an experience with someone as they learn something new, problem solve, and come to their own conclusion are aspects of outreach that Lucas truly enjoys. That is after all a part of the scientific method! Helping people foster a new, science-based way of looking at the world is a valuable part of being a scientific researcher. Communication and outreach have the power to make the world a better place. 

Interview and article by Communications Intern, Claire Gibson

Photo Credit: Maggie Hinkston