Adopt a Scientist: Geology of Other Worlds

October 9, 2008
By the SETI Institute

While we yearn to walk on other worlds, SETI Institute scientist Cynthia Phillips strolls the surfaces of distant planets each day at her computer. She’s a planetary geologist on a quest to understand how liquids change the surfaces of other worlds. She studies Mars and the icy moons of the outer solar system, mapping the evolution of their surfaces. It’s all part of the search for life beyond our home planet, Earth.

An expert in processing spacecraft images of the planets, Cynthia Phillips is especially interested in the search for active geological processes on such worlds as Mars, Europa, Io, Titan, and Enceladus. Regions of current, ongoing geological activity are particularly germane from an astrobiological perspective because they represent locations where liquid water could be present today. Such active regions are also places where material from underneath could be brought up to the surface, where it’s much easier for scientists to observe using either remote sensing or landed spacecraft.

Cynthia compares the images taken of Jupiter’s moons Europa and Io by the Galileo and Voyager spacecraft to search for any changes that may have occurred on their surfaces. In the case of Europa, which is believed to have a mammoth, liquid ocean beneath its icy surface, active regions could pinpoint locations where liquid water is located close to the crust. Such areas would be important targets for a future Europa spacecraft mission, and perhaps one day could be landing sites. While she has not yet found any such active regions on Europa, Cynthia continues to search the Galileo dataset. She also uses her detection techniques to document ongoing volcanic activity on Jupiter’s pizza-like moon, Io, and the motion of enigmatic features called "dark slope streaks" on Mars. She uses her image processing background to help map channels on Saturn's moon Titan that could be caused by the flow of liquids such as ethane or methane.

Cynthia is interested in impact cratering and uses high-resolution images of Europa to study the distribution of small craters. With this data, she models how impacts transport material vertically at Europa's surface in a process known as "gardening." She plans to apply her techniques to other bodies in the solar system, including the Moon and the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn.

Adopt a Scientist

In addition to her scientific research, Cynthia Phillips leads the SETI Institute's successful summer internship program for undergraduate students. Partially funded by the National Science Foundation as part of their Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, the SETI Institute’s Astrobiology REU program also receives funding from the NASA Astrobiology Institute and from private donors. The program brings about 15 undergraduate students from around the country to the SETI Institute each summer, where they are paired with scientists to spend 10 weeks immersed in a scientific research project. The program includes field trips to interesting local sites such as Lick Observatory and a week-long field trip to Hat Creek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HCRO), where students spend time learning about radio astronomy at the Allen Telescope Array, and go into the field as astrobiologists at nearby Lassen Volcanic National Park studying geology and biology in extreme environments. At the end of summer, the student interns present the results of their research in talks; some go on to give presentations at national scientific conferences or are co-authors on journal articles.

2008 SETI Institute Research Experience for Undergraduates students at Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California    Credit: SETI Institute

REU students conduct field research at
Lassen Volcanic National Park 
Credit: SETI Institute

Options to adopt Dr. Phillips's work with the REU program include:

* Option 1 ($2,500): Fund a local field trip for the REU students. This could be a trip to San Francisco and the California Academy of Sciences; for example, transportation via train/bus from Mt. View to San Francisco, admission to the museum and meals. The donor is invited to come along on the field trip with the students.

* Option 2 ($3,500): Fund a portion of Dr. Phillips's salary to supervise one student in the program in addition to her oversight of the entire program. The donor is invited to the end-of-summer science presentations by the students.

* Option 3 ($25,000): Fund Dr. Phillips's salary for 4 months (the REU program plus prep time). This level includes participation in the field trip to either HCRO or Lassen with expert guides.

Bonus: All levels include a personally-autographed copy of one of Dr. Phillips's popular-level books. Selections include Everything Astronomy, Everything Einstein, 101 Things You Didn't Know about Einstein, Everything Da Vinci, and 101 Things You Didn't Know About Da Vinci.