|Zip Code Mars Contribution
What advice can you offer to young scientists or engineers?
Be inquistive, skeptical, and open-minded. Study things that you're passionate about, because it's that passion that will help you get through a lot of the hard and sometimes painstaking work that is required to be a successful scientist.
What's the most challenging part of your job?
There are of course many challenges to being involved with a mission like MER, but two come to mind as primary. While I’m a scientist, and I know what the team needs to achieve scientifically, I have to be continually on top of the enormous number of engineering and operations issues that arise every day within the Project and whose resolution will, ultimately, effect the quality and quantity of science that we’ll be able to do on Mars. It’s a real challenge keeping up with the technical details. And secondly, it’s an enormous challenge keeping up with MER in general while living and working on the other side of the country from JPL. Time away from my family and my work obligations here at Cornell is stressful but necessary. Thank goodness for telecons! I have been fortunate to be able to address both of these challenges by working with incredibly talented, patient, and understanding engineers, scientists, and managers on the MER team at JPL. While many of us may often be out of sight, we know we are not out of mind (though we may be out OF our minds).
What is unique about your job?
As an astronomy professor, I split my time among teaching, undergraduate and graduate student advising, university or other academic service work, and research. Some days might be entirely devoted to preparing and giving lectures or exams; other days can be filled with student and staff meetings. I spend many (too many) days away from home on work-related travel, to JPL for MER work or D.C. or other places for review panels, committees, workshops, or scientific meetings. Rare and wonderful are those days where I actually have more than an hour or two to concentrate on science! When I am so fortunate, I spend most of my time working on determining planetary surface composition from multispectral imaging and/or imaging spectroscopy measurements. My work life is extremely busy, but also extremely rewarding.
What’s the most extraordinary experience you've had so far on this mission?
The whole mission is extraordinary, but my favorite part so far was getting to install the Pancam calibration target, also know as the "Mars Sundial" on one of the rovers while it was being assembled at Cape Canaveral. Very exciting to be so close to a machine that will be on Mars forever!
What excites you about Mars or about space exploration?
I find Mars exciting because on the one hand it’s so similar to Earth, and on the other it’s so different. Nowhere else in the solar system can we find such an Earthlike natural laboratory to test theories about climate change, planetary evolution, and the very origin of life. Yet for its familiar desert-like appearance, Mars is a wildly hostile place for humans (and our robotic emissaries). And one other aspect of Mars exploration is particularly exciting: unlike the situation in many other parts of astronomy, what we discover and conjecture about Mars with MER and other missions in the near future will be directly tested in the not-too-distant future by people who go there. We are building tomorrow’s Mars museum pieces today! It’s really a thrill and an honor to be directly involved in making history happen.
Do you work on any other projects at your company?
I work on a variety of projects here at Cornell. I was a member of the Mars Pathfinder and NEAR science teams, and I am continuing to publish papers from both of those very successful missions. I’m also a member of the CONTOUR science team (a Discovery mission to fly by comet nuclei in 2003 and 2005) and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter MARCI camera team. In addition to these mission activities, I’m also actively involved in telescopic observations of Mars, asteroids, and other solar system bodies both from ground based facilities like Palomar and Mauna Kea and the Hubble Space Telescope.
Do you have any hobbies?
In my spare time (!) I enjoy photography, woodworking, and squash. However, my real dream is to play for the NASA softball team. If the coach is looking for a left handed first baseman who bats right and had an .866 slugging percentage last season, please send him/her my way…