Autumn Shackelford, a physics doctoral student, is studying the moon and regolith properties on airless bodies.

UCF Grad Student Leaves No Stone Unturned to Advance Space Exploration

By: Kissimmee Crum on

This Knight leaves no stone unturned, not even on the moon. Autumn Shackelford is a physics doctoral student studying planetary bodies without atmospheres. Specifically, she is looking at the surface composition of the moon and Mercury.

Being the first in her family to pursue the sciences, the Tennessee native was deeply influenced by science museums and hands-on labs in school. It was in high school where she first used a spectroscope to view tubes of various gases. Her love for spectroscopy and compositional science only grew from there. Currently, she is the vice president of UCF’s Women in Physics Society and volunteers with the Astronomy Society, which helps coordinate public events at UCF’s Robinson Observatory.

Lunar regolith is a major component of her graduate research. Regolith makes up the top layer of planetary body surfaces and is composed of loose materials such as dust, rocks, and sand soil. This medley of minerals provides an insight into what can grow and thrive on a planet.  Although the moon and Mercury seem far away, Shackelford’s research will also provide insights for those on Earth.

“Conducting planetary science research is important because the study of other planetary bodies can allow us to better understand our own planet, and subsequently, life itself,” Shackelford says.

Being able to conduct research and share space discoveries is a true honor, she added.  After completing her PhD program in physics with a planetary sciences track, Shackelford wants to become a professor in her field or a science communicator. Shackelford, who enrolled at UCF after completing her bachelor’s degree in Alabama, says it’s critical the public understand the discoveries being made.

“UCF is aiming to be at the forefront of planetary science research and is actively conducting research that will be the basis for the future of human space exploration,” Shackelford says. “Knowing that we are so dedicated to the study of space sciences here really pushes me to focus on being the best science communicator that I can be. I want to share the wonder of our universe with everyone, not just my fellow scientists.”

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