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Monday 24 October 2016

Space scientist Claudia Alexander, who helped lead Jupiter mission, dies at 56

Published 17/07/2015 | 15:26

Claudia Alexander during the Galileo mission to Jupiter. (AP)
Claudia Alexander during the Galileo mission to Jupiter. (AP)

Claudia Alexander, a pioneering scientist who helped direct Nasa's Galileo mission to Jupiter and the international Rosetta space exploration project, has died at the age of 56.

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The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where Ms Alexander worked as the US lead on the Rosetta Project, announced her death. JPL officials said she died on Saturday after a long battle with breast cancer.

As word of her death spread through the science community, tributes poured in.

"Claudia brought a rare combination of skills to her work as a space explorer," said Charles Elachi, JPL's director. "Of course, with a doctorate in plasma physics, her technical credentials were solid. But she also had a special understanding of how scientific discovery affects us all, and how our greatest achievements are the result of teamwork."

Ms Alexander was an acclaimed scientist who conducted landmark research on the evolution and interior physics of comets, Jupiter and its moons, solar wind and other subjects. She authored or co-authored more than a dozen scientific papers.

The University of Michigan, where she earned her doctorate, named her its Woman of the Year in 1993.

She was the last project manager for Nasa's Galileo mission, in which twin spacecraft launched in 1989 made an unprecedented trip to Jupiter, using gravity from Earth and Venus to propel themselves there. Along the way, they provided unprecedented observations of the solar system.

At the time of her death, Ms Alexander was project manager for the US involvement in the international Rosetta project, which marked the first time a spacecraft rendezvoused with a comet.

Born in Canada and raised in northern California's Silicon Valley, she joined JPL soon after completing graduate school.

She had originally planned on becoming a journalist, but her parents steered her in another direction, insisting she pursue something that would better serve society.

"My parents blackmailed me," she once said. "I really wanted to go to the University of California at Berkeley, but my parents would only agree to pay for it if I majored in something useful, like engineering. I hated engineering."

JPL officials said two memorial services are planned, one in Los Angeles on July 25 and another in San Jose on August 8.

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