Planetary Exploration

I have a hypothesis that everyone has at least of a little bit of space geek in them. For some, it's buried pretty deep; for others, like myself, it's their career. As a professional space geek, I have served as a science team member of NASA's MESSENGER mission to the planet Mercury, a collaborator on NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu, and the Director of Data Products at Planetary Resources, Inc. for its asteroid prospecting mission. 

My journey to becoming a planetary geologist involved some meandering, but not much. I remember as a summer intern in 2007 at the SETI Institute seeing a picture of Jupiter's moon Europa for the first time and learning that there could be life beneath its icy shell. Life!!!!! Images like the one below inspired me to pursue planetary science.

This image of Europa's surface was captured by the Galileo spacecraft during its time in the Jupiter system from 1995 to 2003. The broken-up chunks are basically icebergs from pre-existing ice crust that somehow was broken up when warm ice or water reached the surface.  (NASA/JPL/U. of A.)

My subsequent immersion in the field has only deepened my fascination with planetary exploration. Sending people to the Moon was certainly one of humanity’s greatest achievements, but I believe that the many successful robotic missions deployed by NASA and other space agencies are no less of an achievement. From the stunning images of Saturn returned by Cassini to the landing of the laser-carrying Curiosity rover to the recent flyby of Pluto by New Horizons, humanity’s collective minds have been blown repeatedly by the diversity and strangeness of the worlds beyond our own. For example:

This picture is actually a composite of about 850 images from 3 different cameras on the Curiosity rover on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The geysers of Saturn's moon Enceladus were first detected by the Cassini spacecraft, which is still orbiting Saturn today. (NASA/JPL/SSI)

Jupiter's moon Io is the most volcanically active planetary body in the solar system. Its surface is yellow due to the sulfur belched out by its volcanoes, many of which can be seen pockmarking its surface in this image. (NASA/JPL/U. of A.)

As I was learning about Mercury in grad school, MESSENGER, the mission I work on, was simultaneously collecting data that proved that information wrong. That’s one of the most fun things about planetary exploration—just when you think you understand a planet, new data can completely change your perspective.

At Planetary Resources, I used my planetary science background to define the measurements that an asteroid prospecting spacecraft would have to perform at the asteroid. It was a super fun project that let me do "applied" planetary science and learn about spacecraft and mission engineering. The start-up environment lacked the bureaucracy of NASA missions, which afforded us a lot of flexibility in how we approached the problem. The resulting concept—which began with me and a coworker locking ourselves in a room and scribbling on a white board—was depicted in this fun video: