Dr Jessica Watkins has become the first person to publish a scientific paper from space, as the final stage of peer-review took place when the NASA astronaut was already up on the International Space Station (ISS). IFLScience spoke to Watkins about this unusual record as well as the experience of doing science high above our heads.
The paper, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, was part of Watkins’s geology post-doctoral research on data related to Mars’s Gale Crater, which NASA’s Curiosity is currently exploring. Led by Watkins, the work delivers insights into the geological changes the Red Planet experienced, turning it from a water-rich basin to the dry frigid site that it is today.
Luckily, the majority of the paper was already complete prior to launch, because access to resources would certainly be a challenge on-orbit,Dr Jessica Watkins
“The paper describes the discovery of an unconformity, or a discontinuity in the time of deposition, in a sequence of sedimentary rocks in Gale crater on Mars," Dr Watkins told IFLScience.
"This unconformity separates rocks that formed while a lake was present in the crater, and overlying rocks which formed when the climate was much drier, leading to the formation of eolian sand dunes. As such, the unconformity records a transition from wet to dry climate in Gale crater, providing evidence consistent with a global transition from wet to dry climate on Mars."
Watkins had submitted the original manuscript several years ago before the application to become a member of NASA’s astronaut corps. When the paper was returned with the reviewers' comments – a standard step in the peer-review process – Watkins was already on her way to becoming an astronaut.
She was able to pick over these comments recently and together with her co-authors readied the paper for publication, as she joined NASA'S Crew-4 to become the first Black woman to serve on the ISS.
AGU is committed to open science and open data so scientists all around the world can collaborate. Why should space be an obstacle?Matthew Giampoala, AGU Vice President of Publications
“Luckily, the majority of the paper was already complete prior to launch, because access to resources would certainly be a challenge on-orbit," Dr Watkins explained to IFLScience.
"In addition to limited data and communication bandwidth aboard the ISS, physical bandwidth in terms of time and energy to shift focus to a non-mission critical project is also limited as an ISS crew member. But thanks to the dedication of my co-authors, I was able to review the article proof and complete the publication process from the ISS."
JGR: Planets is one of the journals of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). Published by Wiley, the organizations had to collaborate with NASA to make this publication happen.
“We're excited to partner with AGU and NASA to get Dr. Watkin's research published. This required a few extra steps in our typical production process, but we're always committed to advancing research, no matter the distance,” Allyn Molina, Wiley’s Vice President of Editorial Management, told IFLScience.
A sentiment echoed by Matthew Giampoala, AGU’s Vice President of Publications, who told us: “AGU is committed to open science and open data so scientists all around the world can collaborate. Why should space be an obstacle?”
While astronauts seldom write papers in space and have only just started publishing them, they do contribute a lot to scientific research.
“Here on the ISS, we are privileged to be able to participate in ground-breaking research on behalf of scientists and engineers around the world who design experiments to collect data on the ISS, analyze that data on the ground, and then publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals,” Watkins told IFLScience.
“As a result, the best way to support ISS crew involvement in the research process is to continue to ask new questions and innovate new means of using the microgravity environment of ISS to answer them!”
Among the many projects Dr Watkins is working on 420 kilometers above our heads is the observing and photographing of geological changes on Earth. Thanks to being in low-Earth orbit and Watkins's expertise, the project is certain to deliver a unique perspective of our planet.
We are so excited about NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions. Certainly for me, the prospect of being a part of the effort to conduct field work on the surface of another planetary body is inspiring to say the least.Dr Jessica Watkins
“As a planetary geologist, one of my favorite aspects of observing Earth from the unique vantage point of the ISS is viewing Earth from a planetary perspective," Dr Watkins said.
"The ability to visualize from orbit sites where I have done field work on the ground and compare in-situ 'ground truth' observations with orbital observations sheds significant light on how the two datasets can inform one another, both on Earth as well on other planetary surfaces where we rely heavily on orbital data for insight into the geology."
This is Watkins’s first time in space, but she is also part of the Artemis crew, the NASA astronauts that are expected to land back on the Moon in the next few years. The first uncrewed launch in the Artemis program, Artemis I, is happening in just a few weeks.
“We are so excited about NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions, starting with Artemis launching later this month," Watkins told IFLScience.
"Certainly for me, the prospect of being a part of the effort to conduct field work on the surface of another planetary body is inspiring to say the least, and to know that the work we are doing on our current mission on the ISS is helping to pave the way to the Moon (and eventually to Mars) is truly an honor."
Watkins can proudly add this new record to her already impressive résumé. The astronaut is also a former international rugby player and will be the first Black woman to complete a long-term mission on the ISS. We look forward to seeing her walk on the Moon, bringing her geological expertise to the close-up study of our satellite.