Dr. Cynthia Phillips

Cynthia Phillips

Curriculum Vitae:

An expert in processing spacecraft images of the planets, Cynthia Phillips is particularly interested in the search for active geological processes on such worlds as Mars, Europa, Io, and Enceladus. Regions of current, ongoing geological activity are particularly germane from an astrobiological perspective because they could 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 detect using either remote sensing techniques or landed spacecraft.

Cynthia has compared 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 would 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 has also used her detection techniques to document ongoing volcanic activity on Jupiter’s pizza-like moon, Io.

Adopt a Scientist Opportunity

Interested in doing science from the comfort of an ergonomic office chair? Join Cynthia to learn how those amazing “pretty pictures" of the planets that grace calendars and press releases are actually made.

She’ll teach you some of the secrets of image processing that she’s used to make some of the most popular images of Io and Europa – images that you’ll recognize from the cover of Science magazine and numerous calendars, T-shirts, textbooks, and other locales. Depending on your interest, you can pick your favorite place in the solar system (Cynthia’s an expert on the Galilean satellites but can accommodate interests in Mars or other solar system bodies) and create your own unique mosaic from raw images to develop a one-of-a-kind product.

You’ll use the same software tools as the pros, and your final mosaic will be scientifically accurate. Then, you and Cynthia will analyze your final product using Cynthia’s skills in planetary geology and remote sensing. Who knows, you might make an amazing scientific discovery in the process!


REU Site: Life in the Universe - Astrobioloigy at the SETI Institute


The SETI Institute (SI) proposes a renewed REU site with a focus on astrobiology, the study of the living universe. Astrobiology is cross-disciplinary, ranging from astronomy and astrophysics to planetary sciences life sciences, geology, and chemistry to explore the universe. The SI is a non-profit research institute, with two scientific divisions and a robust education and outreach division. The Bernard M. Oliver Center for SETI Research focuses on the search for intelligent life in the universe, while the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe focuses on the search for life in the solar system and beyond. REU students will be partnered with scientists to conduct a broad range of research projects at facilities available onsite and nearby at the NASA Ames Research Center. SI is a leading astrobiology research organization as noted by the National Research Council in "Life in the Universe: An Examination of United States and International Programs in Astrobiology."
Intellectual Merit During this summer internship, students will participate in 5 major components: 1. SI scientists mentor students as they conduct individual research projects. 2. The SI scientists present a coordinated set of presentations that introduce the REU students to the breadth of astrobiology research. Students learn about graduate opportunities at the 16 US and 5 international research universities and institutions that comprise the NASA Astrobiology Institute. 3. Student interns participate in the weekly astrobiology "journal club" discussion led by scientists to learn literature research skills. 4. Students participate in educational, social and cultural activities via research-related field trips. The entire REU group spends a week learning about radio astronomy at the Allen Telescope Array at Hat Creek Radio Observatory, and touring an extremophile research site at nearby Lassen Volcanic National Park. Other local field trips are also included. 5. During the final week, students participate in a symposium where they present their research results, and some students present subsequently at professional scientific conferences.
Broader Impacts This REU project has 4 goals, 1. The proposed program continue active research participation by undergraduates at SI, bringing more diverse students to the field of astrobiology, and leveraging SI's relationships with NASA ARC, California Academy of Sciences, and UC Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Laboratory at Hat Creek Radio Astronomy Observatory. These strategies will "advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning", and also will "enhance infrastructure for research and education." 2. Recruitment is on a national level, with emphasis given to groups underrepresented in sciences, including women and minority students. 3. Students complete a scientific research project suitable for a professional meeting or publication. Students are specifically mentored in the preparation of posters, presentations, and publications. This work, as well as the education and public outreach component of some of the field trips and student projects supports a "broad dissemination to enhance scientific and technical understanding". 4. Students are encouraged to attend graduate school and consider careers in scientific research, feeding the STEM pipeline. Students participate in organized sessions on graduate school selection and admissions with the team of REU mentors and other SI scientists. Bringing new students into the exciting new field of astrobiology will help us better understand the very origins of life itself, and will have broad implications for the future of the species as well as the planet. Thus, this work provides clear "benefits to society."

Multispectral Analysis and Photometry of Galileo Europa Data


Jupiter's moon Europa likely possesses an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy surface, but estimates of the thickness of the surface ice shell vary from a few kilometers to tens of kilometers. Color images of Europa reveal the existence of a reddish, non-ice component associated with a variety of geological features. The composition and origin of this material is uncertain, as is its relationship to Europa's various landforms. Published analyses of Galileo Near Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (NIMS) observations indicate the presence of highly hydrated sulfate compounds. Additional spectral information from the Galileo Solid State Imager (SSI) could further elucidate the nature of the surface deposits, particularly when combined with information from the NIMS. However, little effort has been focused on this approach because proper calibration of the color image data is challenging, requiring both skill and patience to process the data and incorporate the appropriate scattered light correction. Radiometric correction of the SSI data set will enable photometric modeling to be applied to understand surface properties such as porosity, density, fine structure and phase response. We will properly calibrate then utilize SSI data in combination with NIMS data to compare the non ice component across Europa's surface to examine possible variations associated with geological features. Detailed comparisons between color data and the morphology of geological features will permit improved understanding of the origin and subsequent alteration of non-ice materials. We expect that this synthesis of Europa multispectral observations will allow us to better understand the composition and possible formation mechanisms of features on Europa's surface associated with non-ice regions. Moreover, by applying the scattered light correction to the Galileo SSI color data set and contributing those corrected data to the PDS, we enable future additional utilization of a valuable data resource.