Adopt a Scientist: Geology of Other Worlds

Adopt a Scientist: Geology of Other Worlds
Cynthia Phillips.
(Image: © Seth Shostak)

While weyearn to walk on other worlds, SETI Institute scientist Cynthia Phillipsstrolls the surfaces of distant planets each day at her computer. She?s aplanetary geologist on a quest to understand how liquids change the surfaces ofother 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 lifebeyond our home planet, Earth.

An expertin processing spacecraft images of the planets, Cynthia Phillips is especiallyinterested in the search for active geological processes on such worlds asMars, Europa, Io, Titan, and Enceladus.Regions of current, ongoing geological activity are particularly germane froman astrobiological perspective because they represent locations where liquidwater could be present today. Such active regions are also places wherematerial from underneath could be brought up to the surface, where it?s mucheasier for scientists to observe using either remote sensing or landedspacecraft.

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

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

Adopt a Scientist

In addition to her scientific research, CynthiaPhillips leads the SETI Institute's successful summer internship program forundergraduate students. Partially funded by the National Science Foundation aspart of their ResearchExperiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, the SETI Institute?sAstrobiology REU program also receives funding from the NASA AstrobiologyInstitute and from private donors. The program brings about 15 undergraduatestudents from around the country to the SETI Institute each summer, where theyare paired with scientists to spend 10 weeks immersed in a scientific researchproject. The program includes field trips to interesting local sites such asLick Observatory and a week-long field trip to Hat Creek Radio AstronomyObservatory (HCRO), where students spend time learning about radio astronomy atthe Allen Telescope Array, and go into the field as astrobiologists at nearbyLassen Volcanic National Park studying geology and biology in extremeenvironments. At the end of summer, the student interns present the results oftheir research in talks; some go on to give presentations at nationalscientific conferences or are co-authors on journal articles.

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

  • Option1 ($2500): Fund a local field trip for the REU students. This could be a tripto San Francisco and the California Academy of Sciences; for example,transportation via train/bus from Mt. View to San Francisco, admission to themuseum and meals. The donor is invited to come along on the field trip with thestudents.
  • Option2 ($3500): Fund a portion of Dr. Phillips's salary to supervise one student inthe program in addition to her oversight of the entire program. The donor isinvited to the end-of-summer science presentations by the students.
  • Option3 ($25,000): Fund Dr. Phillips's salary for 4 months (the REU program plus preptime). This level includes participation in the field trip to either HCRO orLassen with expert guides.

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

Have a news tip, correction or comment? Let us know at