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Cosmic collaboration

Lisa Danielson sparks Lab-wide collaboration to advance Los Alamos planetary science.
July 18, 2019
A woman stands in front of a space-themed backdrop.

Lisa Danielson brings expertise and new energy to planetary science.CREDIT: LANL


“There are tons of experts at the Lab who do unique and exciting work, but they need someone who can pull those experts together to grow the field of planetary science.”- Lisa Danielson


“Does life exist beyond Earth?” That’s the question Lisa Danielson has wondered about since the age of five, when she first became interested in space. Four decades, three degrees, and one stint at NASA later, she is now equipped to find the answer as the new lead for planetary science in the Space and Remote Sensing Group at Los Alamos.

Danielson started her position on April 15. She moved to Los Alamos from Houston, where she was the manager of Basic and Applied Research for Jacobs, a contractor of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. But this isn’t her first taste of New Mexico. In her early 20s, Danielson visited the Earth and Planetary Sciences building at the University of New Mexico, where she encountered the space rocks that sparked her career. “I stepped inside and saw meteorites, and I was instantly hooked,” Danielson says.

In a sea of scientists, Danielson stands out, and not just because of her pink hair and 1,000-watt smile. Like a beacon, she radiates excitement over her new role at the Laboratory—officially, planetary science expert, but unofficially, scientist herder. “There are tons of experts at the Lab who do unique and exciting work, but they need someone who can pull those experts together to grow the field of planetary science,” Danielson says.

“Lisa is that someone,” explains Reiner Friedel, director of the Center for Earth and Space Science and manager of NASA programs at the Lab. “Lisa will help write strategy proposals, bring experts into Los Alamos and together at the Lab, and be an ambassador for the center.”

Planetary science (the study of the composition and formation of planets, moons, and planetary systems) is a broad field, and Danielson intends to make it broader, encouraging collaboration among Lab experts working in disparate fields, such as shock physics, that were traditionally far removed from space research. Space is complex, and to tackle future challenges in planetary science, the Lab needs experts from a diversity of fields working together.

Danielson’s umbrella will encompass everything planetary, from new instruments for the Mars 2020 rover (see “How a bomb built the space program”) to the miniaturization of satellites (see “Electronic license plates for space”). With every step forward in planetary science, there is a speed bump to overcome with new technology. “People always think of the amazing space pictures that are taken once we reach a planetary destination, but it is the journey to that destination that matters most—contributing technological improvements that benefit the public and national security.”