Meet: Peter Thomas
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
On top of Mount Hood in Oregon.
Who I Am
I am a research scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
I study pictures of other planets and satellites sent back by spacecraft;
my particular interests in Mars are how the wind shapes the surface by
moving sand and dust, sometimes in global storms, and how the polar caps
have affected Mars' geology and climate.
I am a member of the science teams that plan, and will analyze images
sent back by the Mars Orbiter Camera on Mars Global Surveyor, as well
as the Orbiter and Lander cameras on the '98 Mars Surveyor Orbiter and
Lander. I also work on other planetary missions such as the Near Earth
Asteroid Rendezvous Mission, the Galileo mission to Jupiter, and the Cassini
mission to be launched to Saturn.
My actual work varies a great deal: making detailed measurements from
images displayed on computer monitors, writing programs to analyze the
measurements, planning what images to take, presenting results in talks
and papers, teaching the occasional class, and going to meetings of the
various spacecraft teams. The most fun is watching the new images that
come in...they are always different from what we expect, and it is always
a thrill to see new landscapes on the other side of the solar system,
even if we can't figure them out! Seeing spacecraft launched is also one
of the fun parts, although often nerve-wracking.
One of the other fun parts of this work is that space missions are carried
out by many people all over the country (and world) who meet and work
together for a common goal. This involves learning how to get along with
and understand a great variety of people. It also means traveling to places
that have major planetary research centers such as California, Arizona,
Hawaii, Colorado, Texas, which are all usually warmer than Ithaca, New
The launch of Sputnik 1 when I was in the sixth grade focused me on
space exploration, and helped push me through lots of science study and
a geology degree from Princeton in 1968. I was beginning a doctorate program
at Cornell in 1975 at the time of the Viking 1 launch to Mars, and became
involved with it, doing my thesis on the Martian satellites Phobos and
Encouragement for science and space came from many sources: My cousin
got me in to watch several Apollo launches (shuttle launches don't compare
to the soul-rattling experience of watching a Saturn V launch!). My father
didn't quite believe in space exploration but he let me launch rockets
in the backyard anyway. Teachers from fourth grade up who helped many
aspects of learning in and out of the classroom, and perhaps as much as
anything, the national mood of the '50s and '60s, which very much encouraged
exploration and science.
More About Me
I grew up in Durham, North Carolina. Graduate school was interrupted
for three years by interesting (but harmless) military service in Asia
and Europe. I got a pilot's license years ago, but haven't flown in a
long time. My chief hobby now is photography, with the occasional tennis,
t-shirt designing and fossil hunting. I read a lot of history, ranging
over many subject areas, but emphasize the Civil War and exploration.
Petting a real Tasmanian Devil in Tasmania (island SE Australia).