University of Michigan graduate student and MESSENGER team member Gina DiBraccio received an Outstanding Student Paper Award from the American Geophysical Union's Planetary Sciences Section for her presentation, "MESSENGER observations of magnetopause structure at Mercury," delivered at the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco last December. The presentation explored the mechanism by which energy and momentum are transferred from the solar wind into Mercury's magnetosphere.
"The processes at the boundary to Mercury's magnetosphere, in particular magnetic reconnection, are similar to what has been found at Earth's magnetopause, except that Mercury experiences much shorter timescales and a higher frequency of events," explains DiBraccio. "This has led us to question what causes the difference in timescales and intensity of magnetopause magnetic reconnection at various planets. We find that the changes in plasma and magnetic pressures affect solar-planetary interaction throughout the heliosphere, as do the orientation and strength of the interplanetary magnetic field that drapes around the planetary magnetopause."
DiBraccio's interest in space science dates back to the third grade, when she declared that she wanted to be an astronaut. "After noticing my decision, my parents strongly supported and encouraged me," she says. "They would leave daily news clippings regarding NASA and new discoveries, take me to the local planetarium and observatories, and bring me to special events at museums, and they even bought me a telescope."
She attended the University of Pittsburgh, earning a dual B.S. degree in physics and astronomy, as well as a B.S. in business administration. She also worked as a co-op student at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and then later at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
DiBraccio is now working on a Ph.D., and she plans to continue research with MESSENGER data. "There are many outstanding questions pertaining to planetary magnetospheres, and MESSENGER makes it possible to explore this exciting topic so we may compare our results to those at other planets with intrinsic magnetic fields," she says.