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2023-2025 Internship - Dragonfly Student & Early Career Investigator Program: Characterizing Sample Morphology to Interpret DragonCam Images

Dragonfly Student & Early Career Investigator Program:
Saturn’s moon Titan is the only moon in our solar system with a dense atmosphere, which supports an Earth-like hydrological cycle of methane clouds, rain, lakes and seas. Complex organic surface materials preserve, in a deep freeze, the types of organic chemicals that were present on Earth before life developed. Titan's icy crust floats atop an interior liquid water ocean. Dragonfly is a rotorcraft lander (an octocopter) that will explore a variety of locations on Titan. Launching in 2027 and reaching Titan in 2033, Dragonfly will journey farther than any robotic lander has ever traveled. With one hop on average every other Titan day (one Titan day equals 16 Earth days), the rotorcraft will travel from its initial landing site to areas over 100 kilometers away during the planned ~3.3-year mission.
Each student Investigator will work with one or more Dragonfly mission team members to conduct Titan research, help formulate Dragonfly mission science and operations plans, or assist in the development of instrumentation, hardware, or testing. A cohort of up to three (3) qualified graduate students from U.S. colleges and universities is selected annually for two-year terms to work with the Dragonfly team. Students dedicate 30% of their time (concentrated during summer and academic breaks) at APL and/or their Dragonfly mentor's home institution and will receive annual funding for travel to Dragonfly team meetings and to publish and present results at a scientific conference. A faculty mentor at each student’s home institution will be granted travel support to attend the annual Dragonfly Student & Early Career Investigator Program kickoff meeting.
Characterizing Sample Morphology to Interpret DragonCam Images
At 90K, Titan’s surface is expected to be composed of water ice and organics. The latter may be liquid (e.g., methane and ethane) or solid (e.g., acetylene, butane, and benzene). We expect that processes that mix and modify solids and liquids here on Earth are also at work on Titan. Although primary compounds and large-scale geologic features on Titan’s surface are known, little is known about the microscopic-scale morphology of these compounds, and how their morphology may evolve after liquid methane and/or ethane interacts with the surface. Building a catalog of microscopic-scale morphologies that Dragonfly may encounter will provide resources for the analysis of Titan’s surface at various scales and will help us to understand the geologic context of these measurements. 
Description: This project will generate analogs of Titan surface materials in a laboratory at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and image these analogs with a camera similar to the DragonCam microscopic imager. This catalog of microscopic-scale shapes and sizes will reveal differences between large-scale crystal structures of different compounds. Understanding these differences will provide new context for the images that Dragonfly will capture with DragonCam and will therefore drive decisions regarding when Dragonfly should take samples with other instruments.
Students will be trained to use a temperature-controlled cryostage and microscope at JPL to image the samples. Samples would also be imaged at APL using the microscopic imager benchtop model. The project entails:
As the Guest Investigator for this project, you may… 
  • Preparing various organic and aqueous samples (pure and mixtures) and analyzing their morphology under controlled temperatures using a cryostage and microscope.
  • Analyzing experimental results using relevant imaging software
  • Developing a catalog of sample morphologies for each compound and mixture of compounds that are relevant to Titan’s surface.
  • Depending on progress, the student may also analyze cryostage samples with a Raman spectrometer to correlate morphology with composition, in the case of mixed samples.
Outcome: The proposed images will provide a catalog for compounds that Dragonfly is expected to encounter on the surface. This project will contribute to the development of DragonCam and the operational guidelines for imaging Titan’s surface. Results generated would aid in the interpretation of future DragonCam results, and will be archived at JPL and APL for further analysis. The results of this study could potentially be published in a scientific journal or presented at a scientific conference. 
Characterizing Sample Morphology to Interpret DragonCam Images Mentors: Dr. Ellen Czaplinski, Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Dr. Shannon MacKenzie and Dr. Jorge Núñez, The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory

You meet our minimum qualifications for this job if you…
  • Are pursuing your Masters or PhD in Physical Sciences or Engineering at a U.S. institution AND will continue doing so throughout the 2-year duration.
  • Have a minimum 3.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale
  • Have a relevant background in Organic Chemistry and/or Analytical Chemistry (desired
  • Have demonstrated ability to conduct independent research or development
  • Have excellent organizational and communication skills (written and oral)
  • Include as an attachment to your profile…
  1. A cover letter
  2. A Curriculum Vitae (CV)
  3. The name and contact information for the prospective faculty advisor at your home institution
  4. A 2-3 sentence statement from the prospective faculty advisor in which they agree to support the student, as a faculty mentor, for the 2-year duration of their participation, should they be selected to work on Dragonfly.
  • Have all requested documents uploaded to your profile no later than June 16, 2023.
  • To access APL’s facilities and networks, U.S. Citizenship status is required, subject to applicable laws
  • Can demonstrate that you are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. To ensure the safety and well-being of the community, APL has established a policy requiring that all staff be vaccinated against COVID-19. All staff members must provide proof of full vaccination or have an approved medical or religious accommodation by their start date
 An intent of this program is to broaden mission participation; thus, it is intended for students who are not affiliated with, and whose faculty and/or research advisors are not involved with, Dragonfly or other spacecraft missions. Students who do not have a background in planetary science, the geosciences, atmospheric science, or their associated subfields are encouraged to apply)
Why work at APL?
The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) brings world-class expertise to our nation’s most critical defense, security, space and science challenges. While we are dedicated to solving complex challenges and pioneering new technologies, what makes us truly outstanding is our culture. We offer a vibrant, welcoming atmosphere where you can bring your authentic self to work, continue to grow, and build strong connections with inspiring teammates.
At APL, we celebrate our differences and encourage creativity and bold, new ideas. Our employees enjoy generous benefits, including a robust education assistance program, unparalleled retirement contributions, and a healthy work/life balance. APL’s campus is located in the Baltimore-Washington metro area. Learn more about our career opportunities at

APL is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action employer. All qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, creed, color, religion, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, national origin, age, physical or mental disability, genetic information, veteran status, occupation, marital or familial status, political opinion, personal appearance, or any other characteristic protected by applicable law.
APL is committed to promoting an innovative environment that embraces diversity, encourages creativity, and supports inclusion of new ideas. In doing so, we are committed to providing reasonable accommodation to individuals of all abilities, including those with disabilities. If you require a reasonable accommodation to participate in any part of the hiring process, please contact Only by ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard are we empowered to be bold, do great things, and make the world a better place.