NAYA| Woman of the Month: Nelly Mouawad and her journey into space exploration

The Lebanese astronomer was the first to start measuring the mass of black holes at the center of the galaxy.
by Chiri Choukeir

28 September 2019 | 12:16

Source: by Annahar

  • by Chiri Choukeir
  • Source: Annahar
  • Last update: 28 September 2019 | 12:16

Mouawad on one of her missions at an obituary. (Photo courtesy of Nelly Mouawad).

Each month, NAYA’s Woman of the Month series honors one pioneering Lebanese woman who has created change in her field. The series introduces you to these women and highlight their stories. For nominating Lebanese women for this series, you can contact NAYA Editor Sally Farhat: [email protected]

BEIRUT: Nelly Mouawad was preparing to graduate. It was her senior year in philosophy and she only had to take a few more courses before her big day. But, what was only a physics elective course turned her life upside down: fascinated by the evolution and creation of the universe, Mouawad's spacial exploration began.

After she earned her PhD in Astronomy from the University of Cologne, Germany, Mouawad was hired by NASA for a mission titled MESSENGER ((MErcury Surface Space ENvironment GEochemistry and Ranging), which has been orbiting Mercury since 2011 .

“We used to decide on what to observe and where to point the telescope. We used to work with other teams as well, and discuss the new data and the new science that we are discovering," Mouawad told Annahar,

Her focus was the morphology and evolution of the Mercurial exosphere. She also studied the existence of elements such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium in the exosphere.

The Lebanese astronomer was also the first to start measuring the supermassive black holes at the center of the Galaxy. Accordingly, her team was the the first to observe the stronger evidence of supermassive black holes.

"You need to keep learning, you see that you’ve learned so much and have done so much and then suddenly a new structure, method, technique, or computation language comes out and whatever you’ve done before becomes too old really fast," she said.

Mouawad returned to Lebanon in 2011. By that time, the astronomer has made up her mind on what her next mission will be: to offer new opportunities at the Lebanese American University for students who love astronomy.

"There was no astronomy club or astronomy courses back then. The students founded a club under my advisory and we started with a physics program last year at LAU," Mouawad said. "Today, we have students who want to go into astronomy. Some of them have already started working with me on research projects."

Mouawad was awarded the 2014 Chretien Grant Award by the American Astronomical Society for a project she had worked on with the California Institute of Technology.

She was also granted a financial fund to study the distance of comets from planet Earth.

"The imaging and processing part has been very challenging. We’ve been working on this for many years actually; we will hopefully get some results soon," she said.

Her advice to the next generation of Lebanese astronomers and astrophysicists?

“Prepare yourself for a PhD. Do as much as you can, learn how to code, to program, and master all this because you will need it."


Welcome to “NAYA”, the newest addition to Annahar’s coverage. This section aims at fortifying Lebanese women’s voices by highlighting their talents, challenges, innovations, and women’s empowerment. We will also be reporting on the world of work, family, style, health, and culture. NAYA is devoted to women of all generations-NAYA Editor, Sally Farhat: [email protected]

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