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Meet: Ken Edgett

(revised March 1998)

Staff Scientist, Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, California
Affiliate of the Mars Global Surveyor Camera and
Thermal Emission Spectrometer Teams


ken edgett photo

Who I Am

I study Mars, and people pay me to do it. Cool, huh? My training is in geology--the study of rocks, dirt and stuff. My main interest is in the geology of the planet Mars. It's way wicked cool!

In February 1998, I began a new job at Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS) in San Diego, California. My title here is staff scientist. I am the first person to be hired here in that role.

My main work responsibilities at MSSS include working with data from the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES) and the Camera (MOC). My boss, Mike Malin, is the principal investigator for the camera, and he is a co-investigator on the TES team. For me, this is a really exciting job because I get to work with both sets of data as they come in from Mars.

The longer I work here, the more responsibilities I will accumulate. I am helping to target what sites on Mars will be photographed by the MGS camera, and I will be helping the company write proposals for new instruments and spacecraft to be sent elsewhere in the solar system (including Mars)!

Before I Moved Here

Before I came to MSSS, I spent 10 1/2 years at Arizona State University (ASU). I started here in June 1987. I completed a Masters degree in Geology in 1990 and a Ph.D. in Geology in 1994. Then I stayed for three more years. Between about 1992 and 1997, I had two main jobs at ASU: I was doing Mars research and I was directing an outreach program that shares the excitement of Mars exploration with kids, teachers and communities throughout Arizona and across the world. The program, called the Arizona Mars K-12 Education Program, is still continuing. I was also the editor of a quarterly newsletter, Mars Underground News for The Planetary Society from 1995 to 1997, and another one, TES News for the MGS TES project (1992-1998).

Other Projects I am Doing

Besides my work at MSSS, on my own time at home I am working on some children's books. In fact, I already have sold one book with my co-author, Peggy Wethered (a terrific friend and a kindergarten teacher in Idaho). The book is for kids and it is about Mars. It is being illustrated by Michael Chesworth and will be published by G.P. Putnams Sons in 1999. Peggy and I and other friends are working on new books, so watch for more in 2000 and beyond!

In addition to books, I have much interest in doing television projects. I had a great time, for example, serving as an on-air consultant to the cable news channel, MSNBC, during the week after Mars Pathfinder landed in July 1997. I also have been working with a television station in Phoenix, Arizona, on a show that might air by mid-1998.

What I Do

I have not been working at MSSS long enough to have evolved a typical, routine work day. I live in Carlsbad, California, which is about 20 miles north of my office. For the first time in more than 10 years, I have to drive to work. (I didn't even have a car for most of the years I was in college). Because of traffic, I tend to come in to work around 10 a.m. and stay until 7 or 8 p.m. Otherwise, each day so far has been different. I am focusing on analyzing the data from both MOC and TES on the MGS orbiter, and helping to decide what new pictures of Mars we will take each time the camera is on. It is really awesome to be in the middle of all the action to explore Mars!

My job, like any research scientist, involves a lot of writing. Being a good communicator is essential in the career of a scientist or engineer. Good speaking skills and good writing skills are important so that you can share your scientific results with your colleagues and with the rest of the world.

My research is mostly about the geology of Mars. I have studied impact craters, volcanoes, channels and sand dunes on Mars. I contributed to the process of helping the Mars Pathfinder team select a landing site, and did some research about the Ares Vallis region that helped in deciding whether to land there. (I didn't pick Ares Vallis, though I had proposed landing in the Cerberus region south of the Elysium volcanoes. I also advocated a site in the dark wind streak coming from the crater Trouvelot in western Arabia). I am currently interested in helping to select a landing site for the Mars Surveyor 2001 lander and rover, Athena. Selection of this site will require a good understanding of the images from Mars Global Surveyor's camera and minerals interpreted from the MGS TES.

Besides Mars, I have done research and field work on sand dunes near Moses Lake, Washington, and in Christmas Lake Valley, Oregon. I enjoy doing field work and being out of the office, but I don't get to do it as often as I'd like.

How Did I Get Here?

I am barely old enough to remember the first Apollo Moon landings. I started Kindergarten in Fall 1970. I can remember some of the later Moon landings (gosh, the last one, Apollo 17, was more than 25 years ago!). My sister and I used to pretend we were Moon astronauts. We would take paper grocery bags and cut them to make our own space suits (large bags for the body, smaller bags for the helmet). We would decorate our suits and we would jump off of chairs to simulate the high bounces that the astronauts would make when they were walking around on Mars.

When I was in fourth grade was when I really got interested in Mars. My teacher, Mr. Loguidice, gave us spelling homework, which we had to practice before each test. To practice the words, he encouraged us to try to write stories with our spelling words, using all the words in a single story. So I did. I wrote really weird stories about "Joe the Martian." To make my stories better, I would read about the planets from books in the school library. I got really psyched about Mars because my character, Joe, was from Mars. That was in 1975. The next year, 1976, the Vikings landed on Mars. It was awesome! I thought the pictures sent back by Viking 1 and Viking 2 were the coolest things I had ever seen. I would stare at the pictures for hours and hours, and imagine myself walking around on Mars, picking up the rocks and kicking at the little drifts. It was neat!

I grew up in Rochester, New York. This is in western New York, about 60 miles east of Buffalo (yes, where Buffalo Wings come from). They get some pretty mean winters up there. The winter of 1976-1977 was especially exciting for me, I was in sixth grade. We had a humongous blizzard that year. The drifts that were created in the snow reminded me of the pictures of drifts at the Viking 1 site on Mars. I would go outside and play in the snow and pretend that it was Mars.

That was it. I was hooked. First "Joe the Martian," then the Viking landings and the Blizzard of '77.

When I was in high school, NASA and the National Science Teachers Association held a contest called the "Space Shuttle Student Involvement Project." Kids could write proposals for experiments that would be flown on the shuttle. Some kids actually got to see their experiments fly in space! I tried this competition three years in a row (10-12th grades). In 10th grade I only got a "certificate of participation." But in 11th and 12th grade, I was a "regional winner," two years in a row! As a regional winner (my region was New York and New England), my teacher and I got to go to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland for a week to explain my proposal. Neither of my projects that I proposed to fly on the shuttle were ever selected to actually go, but the experience I had was very inspiring.

I already knew in high school that I wanted to go to college and get a degree in geology. I started looking for a college to attend when I was in 10th grade. I wanted to study geology because my two passions were planets and fossils. I actually found a college that looked cool. There was a professor there that worked with fossilized star fish, so "fossils" was the direction I leaned when I chose to go to Earlham College.

Earlham College is a small liberal arts school in Richmond, Indiana. (For those of you that live in the midwestern U.S. or get Chicago's WGN on cable TV, Richmond, Indiana, is the place where Tom Raper's RV store is...). The college has an excellent geolgy program; I learned all of the basics and learned them well because the professors spend a lot of time with the students to help them learn. Going to this college was a fantastic experience.

When I was a junior in college, something terrible happened. I was watching it live on television, as it was happening. The Space Shuttle Challenger blew up. Seven people were onboard, including a school teacher. I had never experienced anything like this before. It was very devastating for me. The explosion put the whole space program in doubt for a few months. But this explosion helped change my direction, back toward planets rather than fossils. I was determined to be a part of the space program, and determined to play a role in exploring the planets.

I managed to get an internship at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas during the summer of 1986 (when the shuttles were still grounded). Living near the Johnson Space Center was an incredible experience. Meeting astronauts, seeing Moon rocks, talking with various experts on space and planetary geology, it was great. That was where I started to do Mars geology research. I worked with photos and infrared observations from the Viking orbiters.

A year later I started graduate school at Arizona State University. ASU is one of a small handfull of universities around the U.S. that offers the opportunity for people to study the planets. ASU is particularly good for students that want to focus on the geology of planets, because there are lots of opportunities to explore real landscapes on Earth that are similar to those on planets like Mars.

I started a Masters Degree in Geology in 1987 at ASU. I finished the degree in 1990 and then decided to do a Ph.D. It was not an easy decision to make, but I decided that it would open lots of doors for me. If I left, many of these doors would close. So I did the Ph.D. and completed it in 1994. My research focused mainly on sand dunes, both on Mars and Earth. I also started the Mars K-12 Outreach Program at ASU during this time. I finally left ASU and moved to Malin Space Science Systems in February 1998.

Personal Stuff

I was born in November 1965 in Buffalo, New York. I spent most of my childhood living in the Rochester, New York, area, only a few miles from Lake Ontario. (They have the best cheeseburgers in the whole world there... especially check out "Schallers" and "Char Broil," both on Island Cottage Road near the lake, if you are up there! Ask for them on hard rolls, and make sure you get hot sauce on 'em!)

I have two brothers and three sisters. Two of my sisters and my two brothers are from South Korea; they were orphans and my parents adopted them in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Our family took many camping vacations when we were kids, so we got to travel a lot. My favorite trips were to Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta and to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Canada. We also did many trips to Vermont in the summertime to go fishing and canoeing.

I am the oldest kid in my family. My next youngest sister has her own child, a really cool dude named Adam Emond. Both of my brothers are U.S. Marines, one of them was in peacekeeping force in Haiti a few years ago. One of my sisters is an artist and does book illustrations, the other is interested in a career in "body piercing." I am very proud of my parents and brothers and sisters, but I don't see them much because I live so far from them.

I now live in Carlsbad, California. The coolest thing about where I live is that I can walk to the beach (Pacific Ocean) in only 20 minutes. Carlsbad is nice because it is far enough away from the smog you get down in San Diego or up in Los Angeles. It is also neat-o in the spring because they have farms that raise flowers, which bloom on the hills and look magnificent!

I really like living in the western U.S. because the it has a lot of wide open spaces. I drive a Saturn (it's a planet, after all), and one of my favorite things to do in my free time is to drive, especially long drives through the desolate parts of Nevada and west Texas. I have never been married and I don't have any pets (I travel too much to be able to take care of a pet). I enjoy reading and writing. I like watching NHL Hockey, and I usually watch CNN and Independent Film Channel. I also like some shows such as "Simpsons," "Frasier," "X-files." I used to enjoy MTV, but it seems like they never have any music videos anymore.

Read More About It

I have written all kinds of articles. Here is a list of some that you might find interesting:

More About Joe The Martian

  • Edgett, K., The legend of Joe the Martian: How a fourth-grade homework assignment sparked a lifelong passion to study Mars, Science and Children, National Science Teachers Association, pp.14-17, February 1998.

About Mars Pathfinder's Results

  • Edgett, K.S., Mars Pathfinder, Sojourner, and a Cast of Rock Stars Captivate Earthlings, Earth in Space, v. 10, no. 3, pp. 5-10, American Geophysical Union, November 1997.

About Sand Dunes on Mars

  • Edgett, K., P. Geissler, and K. Herkenhoff, The sands of Mars, Astronomy, 21(6), 26-35, June 1993.

About the Arizona Mars K-12 Education Program

  • Edgett, K.S., and P.R. Christensen, K-12 education outreach program initiated by a university research team for the Mars Global Surveyor Thermal Emission Spectrometer Project, Journal of Geoscience Education, 44, 183-188, 1996.


Learn more from my Web chats
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