By Rick Smith
Italian astrophysicist Elisabetta Cavazzuti spends her spare time rappelling down steep cliffs and waterfalls. This sport, called “canyoning,” combines a sharp respect for physics and precision engineering with a deep love for the beauty of nature.
The rest of the time, her focus is on the stars, which demand the same precise, passionate mix.
Since 2018, Cavazzuti has served as the Italian Space Agency’s “Primo Tecnologo” – or program manager-cum-chief technologist – for IXPE (Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer). In that role, she’s the coordinator for all technical and management activities for the first X-ray polarimetry mission ever flown – and she’s proud of the unprecedented nature of the work.
“IXPE is such a new science that when we go to conferences to present results, we still get comparatively few questions,” she said. “People are just beginning to understand the scale of the new window X-ray polarimetry has opened for us. We’re helping X-ray astronomers and researchers expand their knowledge. This work is special.”
Cavazzuti, who has spent much of her career specializing in gamma ray and X-ray studies, earned a degree in astrophysics in 1995 at the University of Bologna and a doctorate in astronomy in 2006 at the Sapienza University of Rome.
While completing her doctoral studies, she joined the aerospace industry, initially helping to develop and test the soft gamma-ray detector on the European Space Agency’s INTEGRAL (International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory) satellite. Cavazzuti was tasked with assembling INTEGRAL’s soft gamma-ray detector, a compact piece of hardware covered in 4,096 scintillator crystals, which turn light into electrical current.
“I spent four years in a clean room, testing different glues to couple the elements, testing filters to wrap each individual scintillator, testing the detector itself,” she said. “It was pure experimental physics, and it helped shape my career.”
From there, she joined the Italian Space Agency in 2001, immersing herself in X-ray and gamma-ray studies of extragalactic sources including blazars and contributing to other Italian and joint international space science missions.
Cavazzuti joined the FERMI mission team in 2006, leading construction of the gamma-ray imager and later serving as co-leader of FERMI science working groups dedicated to studies of active galactic nuclei and blazars and to cataloguing sources observed by the telescope. In time, she was asked to serve as coordinator for the global FERMI collaboration. She accepted the one-year post, and spent 2017 at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, overseeing all eight FERMI science working groups.
Since then, she has returned to her dual science-and-technology leadership role, continuing her own gamma-ray research while also guiding new flight missions and science instruments, including IXPE, from drawing board to post-launch data analysis. She liaises with academic partners at Italy’s National Institute of Astrophysics and National Institute for Nuclear Physics and with industry worldwide. In 2015, she led the Italian Space Agency’s development and delivery of the Italian contribution to the Japanese-led CALET (CALorimetric Electron Telescope), which aids studies of cosmic rays and dark matter on the International Space Station.
The lure of space science first drew Cavazzuti as a high school astronomy student. Her talent for program management isn’t built on the same fundamental passion, she said – but what keeps her engaged is the people.
“In our program, management permits me to focus on the team,” she said. “Of course we work to ensure projects are on schedule and on cost, but all of it hinges on oversight of people: engineers, scientists, professors, contractors. Every time we assemble a team, there are new ideas and insights, new group dynamics. That’s the element I like most.”
Cavazzuti – who enjoys hiking, skiing, and caving as well as canyoning – said she’s reluctant to give up either of the hats she now wears, despite her very busy schedule. Both, she said, are vital to succeed.
“I work to keep my research alive, because that intensive scientific investigation keeps me engaged,” she said. “And managing programs helps me understand and guide what the instruments can do when they fly. With each new mission, I learn a new piece of technology and a new aspect of science.”
As work on IXPE continues, Cavazzuti is already taking on new endeavors. First up is the planned European Space Agency satellite ATHENA (Advanced Telescope for High Energy Astrophysics), a large X-ray observatory launching in 2037 to detect the formation and evolution of the highest-energy sources in the cosmos: black holes, gamma ray bursts, even the plasma contained in dark matter.
Solid time management makes it all possible, she said, but curiosity – the unflagging desire to observe, to seek, to explore – is the most critical factor.
“People often fear they lack the brainpower to embrace science and technology. They ask themselves, ‘Am I intelligent enough to understand this work?’ Yes! We all are! I’m not an expert on many things; I change focus too often to become an expert in some areas of study,” Cavazzuti said.
“But I am curious, and I am surrounded by curious people,” she added, “and together we walk the same path.”
Learn more about IXPE and its international partnership here.