Maria Banks, research scientist, Planetary Science Institute
What’s your current position and what does your research focus on?
I am a research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. My research focuses on understanding the processes that form and modify landforms on the surface of planets and moons. My current projects focus primarily on processes and landforms observed on Mars, the Moon, and Mercury. For these projects I use data from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) onboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft.

What got you interested in planetary science?
I like to explore and try to understand new things. In my job, every day I get to explore images sent back to Earth from spacecraft orbiting the moon and other planets. In these images, I can sometimes see landscape features the size of a kitchen table and often things that no one else has seen before.

I like to think of my research as a form of detective work. Planetary geologists want to understand the processes that formed the features we see: how were rocks formed or transported to their current location, or why do dunes and ridges appear where they are? How long ago did the features we see form and how long did it take? What can these pictures tell us about what it was like on the planet or moon in the past or what is it like there now? The clues are there. Our job is to find them and to use them to recreate the geologic story.

Why is your subject of research important to you?
I feel it is important to study the surfaces of planetary bodies and moons because their composition and morphology record the nature and evolution of the external and interior processes that have acted upon them. Through this, I hope to contribute to our understanding of how the planets in our solar system, including Earth, have developed and changed over time.

What would you suggest to a young person to study if he/she is interested in planetary science?
If you are interested in studying the geology and atmospheres of other planets and moons, I suggest studying and exploring the geology of Earth and first gaining a solid understanding of our own planet.

About HiRISE
The HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is the most powerful one of its kind ever sent to another planet. Its high resolution allows us to see Mars like never before, and helps other missions choose a safe spot to land for future exploration.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems is the prime contractor for the project and built the spacecraft. The HiRISE camera was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. and is operated by the University of Arizona.