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Meet: Jeff Plescia

Research Scientist
Jet Propulsion Laboratory


Who I Am

I am a research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory -- the home of NASA's robotic missions to Mars. I have an M.S. and Ph. D. in geophysics from the University of Southern California and a B.S. in geology from the University of Miami.

I enrolled at the University of Miami because I thought I wanted to be an oceanographer. Since they did not have an undergraduate degree in oceanography, I majored in geology. I got the chance to spend three months on an oceanographic cruise in the Atlantic one summer, but liked geology better so I continued as a geology major and mostly gave up on oceanography. IÕve been on about a half-dozen cruises over the years, mostly helping out friends who are doing experiments.

I've long had an interest in space and that's what brought me into planetary geology. I remember sitting in front of the television watching with great interest and excitement the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon and following the entire space program - both manned and robotic.

Here at JPL, my research is focused on martian geology and terrestrial impact structures. I also have been very involved in planning for future Mars missions, both robotic and human.

How I Got Here

When I arrived at the University of Southern California in 1977 for graduate school, I wrote a letter to Bruce Murray, who was at the time the director of JPL. I indicated my interest in planetary science and he was kind enough to ask Roger Phillips to invite me to visit JPL and talk with the staff. As a result of that visit, I went to work for Steve Saunders and began mapping tectonic features in the Tharsis region of Mars. I gave up a summer job with Exxon to work at JPLin the summer of 1977, and now 20 years later I'm still here.

During my graduate school career I worked at JPL doing planetary research and at USC doing geophysical research. My dissertation topic was a gravity and magnetic study of the Tehachapi Mountains of southern California to study the crustal structure of the region. When I finished my Ph. D. I went to work at the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff for a few years as a postdoc and then returned to JPL. While still a member of JPL staff, I did two stints at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC, running research programs and coordinating the programmatic aspects of Mars exploration.

What I Do

As a research scientist at JPL, my time is spent between two major activities - research and flight project work.

My research interests includes martian volcanism, tectonism and general geology. I've long been interested in studying martian volcanism because there is such a diversity of structures and the scale of things is enormous. IÕve also studied graben and wrinkle ridges on Mars to understand how the crust has been deformed over time.

During the Voyager mission to the outer planets, I was heavily involved in the imaging experiment and studying the geology of the icy satellites of Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus. It was incredibly exciting seeing those pictures coming down from the spacecraft and knowing you were seeing scenes that no human had ever seen before. That same exciting experience was shared by most of the world in real time over the July 4 weekend with the landing of Pathfinder on Mars.

During my tenure at the USGS, I began working with Gene Shoemaker on impact craters. My interest has been conducting gravity surveys over large craters to determine their structure. Over the last few years, I've worked on numerous craters in Australia, in the Canadian arctic, and in the U. S. This research has involved some fun field trips to exotic places!

The flight project work involves developing the science requirements for the overall Mars Surveyor Program, developing science objectives for specific missions, understanding the requirements that the science instruments impose on spacecraft and trying to maximize the science return from a given mission within the constraints of time, money and hardware. The planning for human missions to Mars involves understanding what we need to know about the martian environment to safely land the crew (things like the surface radiation environment, to the chemistry of the soil, to the number of large rocks that could interfere with landing) and to plan for the science that the crew will do when they are there. Hopefully humans will visit Mars in the 2015 time frame, probably too late for me to go!


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