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Moogega Cooper

Moogega Cooper
Planetary Protection Engineer, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab
PhD Mechanical Engineering '10

CooperIf alien life ever comes to Earth on a returning spaceship, Moogega Cooper would be one of the first people to know. After all, it could happen.As a planetary protection engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, the 29-year-old helps to prevent NASA satellites and probes from contaminating other planets or moons with microorganisms from Earth — and vice versa.When rocks are brought back from missions to Mars, for in- stance, Cooper is part of the team responsible for making sure no hardy bacteria hitched a ride and for analyzing samples. Crafts are carefully checked before they’re sent into space, too.

“For instance, the Curiosity Rover that’s roving right now on Mars has been thoroughly sterilized in heat microbial reduction chambers and monitored during assembly,” she says. “Even in the cleanroom environment we were able to find microorganisms that survived with essentially zero nutrients. This whole place is wiped down with alcohol every day and still a small population of microorganisms can survive.”

In the past, other planetary protection engineers have found and named new types of special strains that were found in cleanrooms.

“A lot of what I do sounds like sci-fi,” she says. But her work is rooted in legitimate scientific and microbiological principles and theory. One astrobiology theory called panspermia proposes that life began on Earth when microorganisms in a rock, comet or a meteor crashed on the planet.

“That could easily happen elsewhere,” she says. “Especially looking at microorganisms and seeing how easily they can shield themselves, I would bet money there’s at least microbial life somewhere else in the universe,” said Cooper.

It’s all part of what makes this a dream job for Cooper, who has wanted to work for NASA since she started renting Carl Sagan’s iconic “Cosmos” series from the library as a little girl.

She attended college near NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia, where she first started interning for NASA. She chose Drexel for her MS (’08) and PhD (’10), which she earned by age 24, because she wanted to work at Drexel’s A.J. Drexel Plasma Institute, the nation’s biggest and most renowned research center of its kind.

As part of her PhD thesis at Drexel, Cooper worked on a project between Drexel and the Jet Propulsion Lab, where she later worked on a fellowship and then a postdoc before she was hired full-time.

Her education came in handy when she took about a month off from work to join TBS’ first season of the reality show “King of the Nerds” in 2013. Cooper competed in “nerd” challenges against competitors who included a professional gamer, a comic book enthusiast and a neuroscientist, and she eventually placed fifth before her elimination. No hard feelings, though: She still keeps in touch with the other participants, and said she would do it all over again if she could.

Back at NASA, Cooper is working on her 15-year plan: She’s been put in charge of a project that will use plasma technology to demonstrate that a prototype of the capsule that will return from the Mars 2020 rover mission is clean of soil and other contaminants. It’s her first time leading a proposal, and she even brought in Drexel’s Plasma Institute and a former fellow Drexel grad student (now an assistant research professor at the institute) as a co-investigator.

It will take at least a decade for the samples collected throughout the 2020 mission to return to Earth, so Cooper’s technology will be applied sometime in 2030. “I never want to leave NASA!” she says. — Alissa Falcone

Planetary Protection Engineer, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab PhD MECHANICAL ENGINEERING ’10 - See more at: