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.
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.
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.
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.
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.