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Writing the Story of Planetary Orbits
Who are NASA's Earth and Space Science Explorers?

The middle school students who track weather to study its effect on bursting tree buds. And the scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. But also the teacher whose class shares Earth science data with students around the world. And the engineer who designs robotic instruments to probe hard-to-reach planets. All of these people are Earth Explorers, Space Science Explorers or both. The Earth Explorers and Space Science Explorers series features NASA explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

Renu Malhotra

Renu Malhotra is a planetary scientist who studies the orbits of planets. Image Credit: Renu Malhotra

How did the planets in our solar system end up in their current orbits? What might the early conditions in our solar system have been like? What is the story behind Earth's orbit? Renu Malhotra investigates questions like these.

As a planetary scientist, Malhotra spends most of her days studying the origins of planetary orbits and planet migration. Planetary migration is a change in a planet's orbit over time. Early in the formation of a solar system, gravitational interactions among planets and planet-building materials may cause a planet that is orbiting a star to spiral inward or outward from it.

Malhotra always had wanted to study the way the universe works. She became "hooked" on the dynamics of planets, when she realized it was a very rich area of work, both mathematically and observationally. Planetary orbits are interesting to calculate mathematically, but scientists also can observe actual planetary orbits in other solar systems. "I want to know how typical or atypical our solar system might be, amongst the many planetary systems in the galaxy," Malhotra says. By studying these dynamics and other solar systems, Malhotra helps planetary scientists have a better insight into our own.

Orbital diagram of the inner planets and Comet Hartley 2

Comets often have orbits that are highly elliptical when compared to planetary orbits. Image Credit: NASA

Currently, Malhotra is receiving funding from NASA to investigate chaotic orbital dynamics of the outer solar system's planets and small bodies, like asteroids and Kuiper belt objects. "With these studies, we hope to understand better the history of planetary orbits and the origins of the periodic comets," Malhotra says.

Eventually, these studies may serve as the basis for new scientific revelations. It is precisely "weaving scientific results into stories" that Malhotra enjoys most. She hopes that her research "will lead to greater appreciation of the beautiful and complex and subtle ways that nature works."

Her research is not the only place Malhotra seeks to weave stories; she also uses them when teaching. Her goal is to inspire younger colleagues to "question assumptions, think outside the box, and add to human knowledge in important ways." Scientists need to learn how to tell stories, ones that will inspire other scientists, but also ones that will spark the curiosity of the public as well. To that extent, future scientists need to learn to think with precision and write well, according to Malhotra. In learning to write well, scientists will be able to better communicate their ideas to larger and more diverse audiences.

"Science is critical for humanity's future," Malhotra says. Conducting research and translating scientific findings into stories will help people see precisely why that is.

Related Resources:
› Solar System Dynamics   →
› Planetary Motion: History of Orbital Mechanics   →
› Space Science Explorers Series
› NASA Career Resources

Brandi Bernoskie/Institute for Global Environmental Strategies