Director of Research, CNRS
LESIA, Paris-Meudon Observatory, France
Athena Coustenis is an Astrophysicist, Director of Research 1st class with the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) of France, working at Paris Observatory in Meudon. Her specialty is Planetology (exploration and study of the Solar System from ground-based and space observations). Her research is devoted to the investigation of planetary atmospheres and surfaces, with emphasis on the outer solar system bodies, in particular icy moons like Titan and Enceladus, Saturn’s satellites, and Jupiter’s Ganymede and Europa, objects with high astrobiological potential. She also works on the characterisation of exoplanetary atmospheres. She has led many observational campaigns from the ground using large telescopes (CFHT, UKIRT, VLT, etc) and has used the Infrared Space Observatory (ISO) to conduct planetary investigations.
A. Coustenis contributes to the definition and development of space missions and to the exploitation of the acquired data. She is Co-Investigator of three of the instruments (CIRS, HASI, DISR) aboard the recently completed Cassini-Huygens space mission to Saturn and Titan, in which she was involved from the beginning of the definition phase. She analyses and interprets the spectro-imaging data recovered since 2004 using her own radiative transfer codes and other analysis tools.
She has contributed in or led several other proposals, studies and development phases for space missions to the outer solar system and the exoplanets. Her expertise in space missions has allowed her to Chair or to participate in several advisory groups within ESA and NASA and other European Institutions. She is currently the Chair of the European Science Foundation Space Science Committee (ESF-ESSC).
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Dr HDR Athena Coustenis
Observatoire de Meudon 5, place Jules Janssen 92195 Meudon Cedex France
Athena Coustenis is Director of Research 1st class with the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) of France, working at Paris Observatory in Meudon.
Affiliation: Paris Observatory, PSL, CNRS, Sorbonne Université, U. Paris-Diderot
Her specialty is Planetology (exploration and study of the Solar System from ground-based and space observations).
She is currently the Chair of the European Science Foundation Space Science Committee (ESF-ESSC).
Athena Coustenis is an Astrophysicist with a specialty in space exploration. She works in the field of Planetology. Her research is devoted to the investigation of planetary atmospheres and surfaces, with emphasis on the outer solar system bodies, in particular icy moons like Titan and Enceladus, Saturn’s satellites, and Jupiter’s Ganymede and Europa, objects with high astrobiological potential. She also works on the characterisation of exoplanetary atmospheres. She has led many observational campaigns from the ground using large telescopes (CFHT, UKIRT, VLT, etc) and has used the Infrared Space Observatory (ISO) to conduct planetary investigations.
A. Coustenis contributes to the definition and development of space missions and to the exploitation of the acquired data. She is Co-Investigator or associated with mainly four of the instruments (CIRS, HASI, DISR, VIMS) aboard the Cassini-Huygens space mission to Saturn and Titan, in which she was involved from the beginning of the definition phase.
She analyses and interprets the spectro-imaging data recovered since 2004 using radiative transfer codes and other analysis tools. She has contributed in or led several other proposals, studies and development phases for space missions to the outer solar system and the exoplanets. Her expertise in space missions has allowed her to Chair or to participate in several advisory groups within ESA and NASA and other European Institutions.
She has written more than 230 scientific papers (H=42), with about 130 in peer-reviewed journals. She has first-authored 3 books and several chapters of Encyclopedias, participated in many E/PO activities. She has delivered more than 600 science lectures (more than 150 invited). In Oct. 2011 Ranked 9th in the Thomson-Reuters decadal survey by citations number and 13th by citations per article among those concerning the “planetary exploration” theme: archive.sciencewatch.com/ana/st/planet/11octPlanetCous/
For the full list of publications and communications see:
A. Coustenis, full list of publications
or download this PDF:
I come from a country where people look up at the sky quite often, especially at nighttime. And from ages lost in time, they usually try to make sense of what they see. How Aristarchus invented the heliocentric solar system, how Eratosthenes proved the Earth was round and discovered the distance to the moon and how Anaximander had the Universe all structured out were my bedtime stories. And of course, I was very close to the sky myself. Not only because my name gave me rights to an Olympian abode, but also because in my family, except for my mother, we were all a little nuts about the sky: my father and brother are both in the Greek Air Force.
And I? I wanted to go higher, I wanted to be an astronaut. It wasn’t being a girl that stopped me, it never has. It was being diagnosed with severe myopia (short-sightedness) and realizing that I’d have to train in the challenging military way where the toughest part for me was getting up early in the morning… No way- I’m a night owl.
So, when I collided with books by Isaac Asimov (oh, the Foundation Series…) and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series on TV, a new approach occurred to me (a girl has to adapt to situation changes). I could be an astronomer. I was inspired by Carl’s description of the Universe, I never missed an episode of Star Trek™ or ‘Lost in Space’ and – I was hooked. My family sort of tried to laugh me out of it. An uncle suggested that I should perhaps think of becoming an astrologer (much more money in that business). An aunt said she had a job for me in a bank (bright girl like you – you’ll catch yourself a husband in a jiffy!). I remained unmoved and unmovable. I was going away to do astronomy, the Greek Sun was not enough for me, I wanted to be where the action was and where space missions were being developed. My father finally cut me a deal: he’d let me go “do my space hobby” in France (not the US, no, no – too far away for a Greek girl of 18) if I promised to study (simultaneously) English Literature, the diploma that would be providing my real bread-and-butter some day. And (just to make doubly sure I didn’t stray far with all this free time on my hands (!?) , the deal stipulated that I had to pass all the exams in June (no second chances in September), go to Greece for three full summer months and return for the next academic year all clean, nice and rested, with my suitcase full of feta cheese and keftédes (meatballs).
So I did. I got two Masters degrees and started two Ph.D.’s with a lot of unconscious enthusiasm . I had about 250 pages of my thesis on English Horror Literature (big fan of Stephen King….) written before I finally had to quit and focus on Astronomy, much to my dismay but with relief. This came with my father’s blessings since the scholarship enabling me to continue my work had come from the French Ministry for my research at Paris Observatory in Meudon. He still encourages me to one day go back and finish my English thesis … and Stephen King still writes books, so it may happen one day…
I did my PhD at Paris Observatory in Meudon, getting my first ‘taste’ of Titan from Voyager 1 infrared data working with colleagues who since then have become good friends. Once I got a glimpse of Titan, I was hooked, bewitched, inspired and haven’t left the Outer Solar System since then… Right after my Ph.D. defense in 1989, I was engaged in three instrument proposals, all of which managed to get aboard Cassini-Huygens: CIRS on the orbiter (I knew quite a lot by then about infrared Titan spectra analysis of Titan) and HASI and DISR on the probe. I was the luckiest girl in world! The teams were fantastic, we threw ourselves into the definition of the instruments, we made observing plans and created models to be tested against the ground truth one day.
By then, the French National Center for Scientific Research had offered me a permanent position and France had become my home. I am grateful to both my mother (Greece) and host (France) countries and feel quite European. While waiting for the mission to arrive safely at its destination, of course I had to occupy myself. I went to large telescopes all over the world and observed Titan with spectra and images. I used the Infrared Space Observatory (ISO). I attacked the problem of understanding Titan from all possible perspectives: models and observations, atmospheric chemistry and surface geology, inside and out and using anything I could get my hands on…
And then one day (very early in the morning of October 1997), we watched, during one of my most memorable career and personal moments, the launch of Cassini-Huygens from Cape Canaveral… just us and the alligators waiting for their breakfast… I cried seeing the launch, I cried of joy and anticipation and thankfulness and pride to be part of this wonderful crowd of people: All the members of the teams, the ESA and NASA representatives who had us on our way to a big new adventure.
And while I was waiting for Cassini to arrive at destination, I also managed to ‘“settle down’” as my mother had long hoped for, got married to Franck, with extraordinary computer skills in his repertoire, and brought into this world my daughter, Callista (“the most beautiful” in Greek), a little star brightest than any in the sky.… Neither one of them cares very much about astronomy, but our association has worked wonders in making me happy and productive in both my personal and professional lives. It takes some organizing efforts for me to attend meetings and also be present for school and dancing shows while following all the mission’s landmarks, but it was and still is worth it.
What is it like in every day life once you’ve finished your studies and managed to get a job as a researcher in this field? I recently contributed to a short movie by O. Borderie, @tmosphere en images Production.
The film “Astronomy and Space careers” (in English and in French) shows some of us who work in the field describing our “job” as an astronomer, what we do, why we became astronomers and giving some hopefully helpful hints about how to become an astronomer. Researchers, engineers and other people involved in the job of astronomy talk about their work from the inside to allow others to grasp what are the requirements in terms of studies, responsibilities, autonomy and initiatives, functional relations, specificities, environment, etc. You can also get an idea of the evolution of this craft in the future. Les métiers de l’astronomie et de l’espace by atmosphereenimages
It was fun talking about our job and how it affects our lives. We, astronomers, come from different directions, diverse backgrounds, men and women from all over the world and yet we are all linked by our passion for astronomy and a strong motivation to add a small contribution to our understanding of the Universe.
I enjoyed participating in this film, hope you enjoy it too!
I came to Astrobiology quite early in my research. How could I miss the implications ‘Titan: the frozen Earth’, ‘organic chemistry closest to our planet’, the ‘methane cycle mimicking the water cycle on Earth’, etc. Of course, ancient Greek philosophers (them again !) had already thought of a universe consisting of “many worlds”. Thales, from Militos, and his students in the 7th century BCE argued for a Universe full of other planets, teaming with extraterrestrial life. They also proposed the idea with which we’re all familiar today (through Drake’s equation, among other and Carl Sagan’s musings, and the contributions of many other scientists’ arguments), i.e. that a Universe so full of stars must also have a large number of populated worlds. This proposal, was already defended by Epicurus and other Greek atomists who countered the geocentric models brought forward later on by Aristotle. The latter concept stuck, though, and hindered scientific progress in this domain for quite a long period of time. In 1862, the French scientist Camille Flammarion , published ‘La pluralité des mondes habités’ (‘on the plurality of inhabited worlds’), in which the conditions of habitability and the presence of life on such habitable planets of our Solar System is discussed. The public loved the book, but Urbain Le Verrier, then Director of the Paris Observatory , and many of his colleagues completely rejected Flammarion’s arguments, as did many of his colleagues. Flammarion was consequently fired from the Observatory… I have had better luck so far…
I’m allowed to be fascinated by the possibility that we could find information on how human beings arose and/or discover life forms elsewhere. Mars, Venus, Titan, Enceladus, Europa and other such places have been our favorite targets for exploring habitats in the Solar System and pushing current models of the origin and evolution of life to their limits, and beyond. Subsurface liquid water oceans, organic constituents swimming in exposed hydrocarbon lakes, water-laden geysers, the possibility of water hiding beneath the CO2 ice fields of Mars: All these new opportunities for exploration in the field of Astrobiology make my every day life and research work exciting and busy. Learning about and contributing to future missions to the Saturnian and Jovian systems are constant sources of joy and reward. understanding of the Universe.And I love sharing these new findings in Astronomy with the public, always supportive and sometimes as passionate as we are… [an excerpt of this text was published in the “Pioneers in Astrobiology” section of the Astrobiology Magazine in February 2012]
Athena Coustenis was born in Athens, Greece and grew up in a garden suburb by the Saronic Bay before moving to France where she earned two Masters degrees and one PhD in Astronomy and Space Techniques (she started another PhD in English Literature and hopes to finish it one day…) thanks to a scholarship provided by the French University which furthermore allowed her to complete a Post-Doc at Paris Observatory and apply for a position with the Centre National des Recherches Scientifiques (CNRS).
Coustenis then got a permanent CNRS Researcher position at the Paris-Meudon Observatory, in the Space Lab for Space Studies and instrumentation in Astrophysics (LESIA). Paris-Meudon Observatory is the most important scientific observatory in France. The facilities at Meudon include a 36-metre tall concrete tower containing a sophisticated spectrograph for examination of the Sun. Nearby, astronomers have converted the beautiful and luxurious Chateau de Meudon into an observatory and some have even lodged there!
Meudon was named by the Gauls, who called it Mol-Dum (sand dune). It is now a suburb on the south western edge of Paris, nestled in the hills and valleys of the river Seine half way between Paris and Versailles.
Coustenis is heavily involved in the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan, and has used a variety of large telescopes to conduct planetary investigations on outer planet systems and exoplanets. She has written more than 100 peer-reviewed publications and has given more than 300 communications in scientific conventions and public events. She has first-authored three books.
She is leading or contributing to several advisory groups for the European Space Agency and for NASA. Among other, she is President of the International Association of Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences and of the Planetary Sciences Division of the European Geosciences union, as well as Secretary General of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Societ.
She has been awarded many NASA and ESA achievement awards and the 2012 Prix pour la réussite au Féminin by the France Euro Méditerranée Association (the ceremony took place at the French Senate on 29 November 2012, see picture attached).
Athena is married to Franck Darin and has a daughter, Callista (“the most beautiful” in Greek, named after the beautiful mythological nymph and a large moon in the solar system). She enjoys visiting Greece and her family there as often as possible.
Director of Research, CNRS
LESIA, Paris-Meudon Observatory, France