What lies at the center of that giant ball of gas we call Jupiter? When you cut through the incredibly dense atmosphere of Venus, what's happening on the planet surface?
These are the questions that dance in the mind of Johns Hopkins University student Jessica Noviello. For her, they are not the idle musings of a child but a calling, pulling her life's path into space.
"To think of being part of a mission that might answer things people have been wondering about for decades, that's very alluring," says Noviello, a sophomore from Smithtown, N.Y.
Hopkins professors say this curiosity makes Noviello the perfect trailblazer for the university's new minor in space science and engineering. The university carries a long tradition of space research, but the nascent minor, now up to five students, is Hopkins' first formal attempt to help undergraduates pursue careers in the space industry.
"We're building on what we have," says physics and astronomy professor Charles Bennett, the minor's co-director. "We're in a very special place here in Baltimore, one of the hubs of the space science industry."
To earn the minor, students must choose a space-related theme and build a sequence of five courses and an internship around it. Most of the courses must come from outside their original majors. "Whatever it is that gets them excited, that's what we want them to work on," Bennett says. "This provides them guidance on how to put it all together and how to work across specific disciplines."
Reminders of the university's history with space exploration fill the lobby of the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy at Homewood. In one corner stands a test model of the FUSE satellite, an 18-foot, 3,000-pound behemoth that launched from Cape Canaveral and was controlled from the Homewood campus. A display case features decorative patches from each of the 14 space missions to which Hopkins researchers contributed between 1972 and 2009.
Across the street sits the Space Telescope Science Institute, the operations center for the Hubble Space Telescope and its hoped-for successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. In Howard County, the university operates the Applied Physics Laboratory, which has designed scores of spacecraft and instruments for NASA.
Last year, Hopkins astrophysicist Adam Riess won a Nobel prize for his exploration of dark energy and the accelerating expansion of the universe.
Despite this confluence of resources, the university did not offer a prescribed path of study for undergraduates interested in space science careers.
Many universities — from California-Berkeley to Cornell to Villanova — offer undergraduate degrees in astronomy or astrophysics. The University of Maryland, College Park houses a well-regarded astronomy program with 73 undergraduate majors.
So it seemed almost odd that Hopkins, with its vaunted history in space and decorated roster of astrophysicists, was out of the mix.
"In some sense, we're just organizing things that are already there," says space astronomy professor Warren Moos, who helped launch the minor. "Geography alone says this is something Hopkins should think hard about."
The idea clicked immediately with students. "We all knew a lot of space stuff was going on, and yet we didn't have a space class," Noviello says. "So it seemed like a perfect fit. My friends and I looked at each other and said, 'Let's do this.'"
Moos and his colleague, Stephen Murray, designed a course, Introduction to Space Science and Technology, that would become a gateway for the new minor. They wanted students to grapple with two questions: What are scientists doing in space? What kind of engineering facilitates such exploration?
Moos and Murray taught the course for the first time last fall. They broke students into teams and asked each group to design a space mission. Engineers were expected to find common ground with physicists.
"What it was really about was helping students understand enough about fields other than their majors, that they would be able to go out and do something working in an interdisciplinary team," Moos says. "Because in this society, that's how things get done."
This focus on blending disciplines and on learning how to execute projects in the real world became a core philosophy for the professors designing the minor. They still wanted students to build strong backgrounds in physics or engineering. "But we wanted to take people who were doing that kind of thing and help them go one step further," Moos says.
Noviello's imagination lived in the ground, not the sky, when she first heard Moos talk about his new course at a meeting of physics students. She fell in love with dinosaurs as a child and never outgrew the infatuation. She came to Hopkins with dreams of digging up ancient bones.
"I wasn't even remotely close to thinking about space," she says.
But she loved to contemplate why things work, what makes systems move the way they do. When she figured out a physics problem, she felt "like a master of the universe."
Given her attraction to big questions, maybe it was inevitable that she would turn to the universe itself — the most elegant and fundamental of systems.
She took the space science course in tandem with a course on the use of remote sensing to study Earth's environment. Both got her contemplating the kinds of questions that could be addressed by dispatching satellites to space.
"You send up this box of metal with some fancy computer parts and you get back all of this new information," Noviello says. "It just fascinates me."
With her mind tilting up from fossils to cosmos, she pounced when the new space minor was formally announced early this year. Noviello downloaded the forms and submitted a plan to study the use of remote sensing satellites in examining the Earth's surfaces and atmosphere.
When her application was approved, she offered a Facebook status update: "I'm now a space minor!"
That prompted some questions from friends, who didn't know such a thing existed. But the consensus was that it sounded pretty cool.
Noviello knows that the nation's dreams, and spending priorities, have slowly turned away from space in recent decades. Earlier this month, she sat through a federal budget hearing in Washington, listening to legislators question the value of spending billions to explore the universe.
She's happy to give her two cents on the practical benefits. "It's not just about finding new planets and taking pretty pictures," she says. "It's about monitoring the state of our biosphere."
But the whole thing is about wonder for her. That's why her computer wallpaper flips to a new image from NASA every day.
Like her mentors at the university, she's looking for the means to convert childlike enthusiasm to real answers about the workings of the universe.
"I'm just a 5-year-old," Noviello says, "who somehow made it through the Hopkins admissions process."