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Meet: Mike Mellon

Planetary Scientist, Mars Global Surveyor
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California


Who I Am

I am a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in California and work for the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council in Washington DC. My work primarily focuses on studying martian geology and climate, including, as central link between these two, water. Water on Mars has attracted a great deal of interest from scientists. Widespread flood channels and valley networks indicate liquid water was once an active agent of erosion on the planet's surface. Yet today, the surface of Mars is too cold and dry to support liquid water. Still, water is present as vapor in the atmosphere and as ice at the polar caps, and probably exists in abundance as ice within the soil (permafrost). Yet, we don't understand where the volume of water that was needed to carve the channels has gone or why the climate has changed. In my work I investigate where water could be located and what geologic evidence can tell us about the planetwide distribution of water. I also study how water is related to the martian climate and how the climate changes in time.

While at work I spend much of my time in the library, my office and the laboratory. In the library I gather information from a wide variety of fields like chemistry, engineering, geology, physics, and of course, planetary science. In my office I use the information I've gathered to create computer models (simulations) of Mars to evaluate existing data, predict future data and to test theories. In the laboratory I make measurements of water and soil in a Mars-like environment (cold). Laboratory experiments can be easier and less costly than making measurements at Mars and help to test both theories and computer models.

Early Years

I grew up in a small town in New Jersey. As a kid I always had some interest in science and engineering, though I never really had any particular career in mind. I did enjoy science in school more than other subjects, particularly when we got do some some hands-on experiments. My grades, however, were not the greatest. When I was 10, my parents got me a telescope and I spent a good deal of time looking at stars and planets. But usually I spent more time fishing and riding my bike than contemplating Mars. Later in high school, my interests tended more toward physics. I still wasn't sure what kind of career I wanted and took classes in drafting and shop, as well as math and science classes. Shop turned out to be rather useful in doing laboratory work where I need to design and build experiments. In my spare time I liked to build model airplanes and model rockets. Some of my rockets were more successful than others. Most of my spare time in high school was occupied with learning karate.

College

I went to school at Stockton State College in New Jersey, where I studied mostly physics but also learned about geology and archeology. I even participated in an archeological dig... no bones, just pottery and stone tools. When I neared graduation I made a decision that, although physics was a great deal of fun, I didn't want to do just physics for a living. So I decided to continue in graduate school in planetary science where I could combine physics with geology, chemistry and meteorology. I also decided I wanted to study Mars. I didn't know what about Mars I wanted to know, just that it had to be Mars. So I moved to Colorado to attend graduate school at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where I was able to work with and learn from some rather bright people who also shared in interest in Mars. Eventually, I was awarded a post-doctoral fellowship (a job!) by the National Research Council to continue my study of Mars here at NASA Ames.

Personal

Besides working on martian research, I enjoy a number of outdoor hobbies such as hiking, camping, and rock climbing. In the winter I like to cross country ski. In fact I particularly enjoy cold weather, which might be why I am interested in the cold climate of Mars. I also have a cat and several fresh and salt water fish. The cat keeps an eye on the fish for me while I'm at work.

Update

After several years working at NASA Ames Research Center I have moved to a new job back at the University of Colorado. My new job as a research associate involves working with data from the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. In addition to my ongoing research interests in water on Mars and its role in climate and geology (mentioned above), I will also be working with data from the spacecraft trying to understand more about martian soil. Moving to Colorado allows me to work more closely with the new spacecraft data and to live closer to the mountains and in the colder climate that I enjoy. Despite leaving Ames, I am continuing to work with my colleagues there on projects involving Mars, Antarctica and the study of permafrost.


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