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Dr Meenakshi Wadhwa

World Asteroid Day

Last month, we were familiar with the “potentially hazardous” asteroid passing by the earth. Judging by movies like Deep Impact (1998), Armageddon (1998) or Meteor (1979), we probably can imagine how potentially catastrophic an asteroid hitting the earth would be.

Movies have a way to exaggerate the obvious and for that matter, we may sometimes wonder if there is any truth to the theories we may have seen.

Asteroids are minor planets in the solar system, orbiting the sun freely. They are studied to understand the origins of the Solar System, as they are believed to be the building blocks of the planets providing materials that carried life-sustaining molecules which, on impact and evolution have formed the earth.

All this may seem intriguing but actual scientists and professionals are studying each detail. One such is Dr Meenakshi Wadhwa, director at Arizona State University, School of Earth and Space Exploration. She is a planetary scientist and educator who studies the formulation and evolution of the Solar System. Born in Mumbai, India, Wadhwa grew up in Chandigarh, graduated from Punjab University in Geology.

The Scientist studies the rocks and debris from asteroids and planets that have landed on the earth or from space. Chunks of this debris are believed to have chipped off a piece of the planet Mars and have travelled millions of kilometres, making its way to the earth. Dr Meenakshi has studied a piece on rock, believed to have landed in Morocco in 2011 via a meteorite and has done fieldwork in Antarctica studying matter from meteorites.

Dr Meenakshi was inspired by NASA astronaut, Kalpana Chawla, who was studying at Punjab Engineering College and a family friend to Wadhwa. Her husband, Dr Scott Parazynski has worked with Chawla at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

The professor’s interest and research have been credited with refining the study of the Solar System and understand her work on trace elements has helped geochemists understand the history of Mars and its evolution. When asteroids and meteorites break chunks off the planet, these pieces have travelled millions of kilometres and have landed on Earth. While most of them may be tiny particles, Wadhwa studies this debris and her study add greatly to the understanding of the Solar System.

Wadhwa became a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 2019. She participated in the American Council on Education Fellows Program in 2018–19. She was the recipient of the Fulbright-Nehru academic and professional excellence fellowship in 2015. She became a Fellow of The Explorers Club in 2012, The Wings WorldQuest in 2007 and of the Meteoritical Society in 2006. She received the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005. In 1999 she was awarded the asteroid name 8356 Wadhwa by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). She was awarded the Nier Prize in 2000. She was awarded the J. Lawrence Smith Medal by the National Academy of Sciences in 2021.

Asteroid 8356 has been named 8356 Wadhwa in recognition of her contributions to meteoritics and planetary science.


Additional link to Dr Wadhwa's article on Discover Magazine:

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