Jean Creighton: An ambassador for astronomy

From Waterloo to the stratosphere

I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the stratosphere this March. NASA selected me to be one of the 24 Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors to fly aboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747 that has been retrofitted to carry a 2.5-metre infrared telescope, which makes it the largest moving astronomical observatory in the world. SOFIA flies at 45,000 feet (in the stratosphere) in order to get above 99 per cent of the moisture in our atmosphere and be able to study the chemistry of star-forming regions in space and how that connects to planet formation.

How did I get this opportunity with NASA? Were it not for my time at the University of Waterloo, I might not have had this opportunity."

I have wanted to be an astronomer since I was five. I was told, however, that I couldn’t be one since my eyesight was poor. I lived in Greece at the time and decided to pursue physics, a close alternative.

While I was a junior at the University of Athens, Greece, Voyager 2 flew by Neptune, which rekindled my interest in astronomy. The flyby encouraged me to cross the Atlantic to start graduate studies in astronomy.

While I was a graduate student at the University of Waterloo, serendipity struck. The comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter. The whole world engaged with this week long event.

For the first time ever, an astronomical event was broadcast live over the internet; the whole world watched as pieces of the comet hit the gas giant in rapid succession.

For me, that was a crash course in public outreach: over 2,000 people came to the University of Waterloo campus to learn about the comet.

I realized at the end of the week that I love public outreach and that I am good at it.

I did not act upon this discovery right away. I tucked away this skill while I went on to my postdoctoral research position at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Since 2007, I am the Director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Manfred Olson Planetarium. I get to share my understanding of our universe and my appreciation of the beauty of the sky with students and the community.

Because of my passion to bring science to others, I was selected to take part in this adventure in the stratosphere.

During the last week in March of 2014, I spent 20 hours in the stratosphere (two 10-hour flights). To prepare for our flights, there were safety trainings, pre-flight meetings, and tours of the labs. There were a total of 25 people on board SOFIA: instrument scientists, telescope operators, mission directors, programmers, system experts, safety techs, pilots and our cohort of four Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors.

Our flight path went along the western coast of the United States (and) British Columbia, crossing east all the way to Northern Manitoba, and then zigzagging back to California.

Added bonus? We got to see beautiful Northern Lights


Jean Creighton and her flight crew

Jean with her cohort: Helen Tavora, Nathan Mahoney and Kathy Gustavson.

JEAN CREIGHTON (PhD Astrophysics, ’98) was born in Toronto and received her undergrad degree in physics in Athens, Greece. She went to Halifax for her masters, and the University of Waterloo for her doctorate. She has been teaching astronomy at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee since 1999. Since 2007, she has been Director of the UWM Manfred Olson Planetarium, and within five years had doubled the number of visitors to the facility, by attracting school groups, birthday parties and senior groups. She writes about how her time at University of Waterloo prepared her to fly through the stratosphere.