Patricio Becerra, LPL graduate student
versión en español

What’s your current position?
My current official title is Graduate Research Associate at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, which basically means I am a senior Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona’s Department of Planetary Science. I work for Dr. Shane Byrne, who is a co-investigator for HiRISE. Through my work with Professor Byrne, I’ve been heavily involved with HiRISE, and I’ve used HiRISE data for all my research projects.

In general, my research involves the combination of spacecraft observations of planetary surfaces with mathematical models of geological processes, in order to investigate the geologic history of the planet. I focus primarily on the polar environments of Mars, and on the interaction between Martian ices and its atmosphere and climate.

I am currently involved in two large projects. In one project, I looked at changes in the brightness of the south polar residual cap (SPRC) of Mars, which is made entirely of carbon dioxide ice (also known as “dry” ice). I analyzed hundreds of HiRISE images of various regions within the SPRC, and modeled the reflectance of its bright surface, i.e. the way light is reflected off the surface and detected by HiRISE. My goal was to explain the occurrence of bright patches of ice that appeared during one particular year. Through extensive analysis of HiRISE images and other spacecraft data, coupled with my models of the surface, I was able to tie these features to a global dust storm that occurred that year and affected the brightness of the cap. This connection is important because it gave us clues as to how the SPRC is able to exist in the first place, which can help describe how the dry ice in the cap has interacted with Mars' atmosphere and affected its climate in the recent past.

For my other research project, I am investigating the recent history of the polar layered deposits (PLD) of Mars (in geological terms, “recent” can mean the last five to ten million years). The PLD make up the bulk of Mars’ polar caps, and are made up of stacked layers of water ice and dust, similar to the ice sheets of Earth’s polar regions. These layers were deposited and eroded throughout different climate periods on Mars, and it is likely that they have recorded this in the same way that ice sheets on Earth have recorded our planet’s climate history. On Earth, climate scientists and glaciologists can drill into the ice sheets and measure the change in composition of each layer to try and look for patterns that relate to periodic climate change. On Mars, however, we can't do that (yet ☺ ), so we must rely on spacecraft images of large canyons that have formed on the polar caps, and that allow us a view of their inner structure. One of the great advantages of HiRISE images is the ability to build 3D maps of the surface of Mars at high resolution, these maps are called digital terrain models (DTMs), and are particularly useful to describe the shape and thickness of the polar layers along a canyon. I am using these HiRISE DTMs to describe and analyze patterns of layers in the PLD to attempt to connect them to periodic changes in Mars’ orbit and rotational tilt, which translate to changes in global climate that affect the distribution of ice on the surface.

What got you interested in planetary science/working with HiRISE?
Ever since I can remember I have been interested in astronomy and space exploration. I was one of those kids who never outgrew wanting to be an astronaut. When I was about 5 years old my parents bought me a collection of science books for children, which included one on astronomy and the planets. The astronomy book is by far the most worn out of that collection. I think I still have it somewhere at home.

I was born and raised in Lima, Peru. Astronomy isn’t a very popular field of study in my country (or in most developing countries). In fact, there is currently no university in Peru that offers it as a major, so although I knew it was possible to be an astronomer, I didn't really consider it an option until I was in my last year of high school. That year I decided to look for places outside the country where I could study astronomy. I had lived in the US for a few years as a kid and spoke the language well, and I knew that the U.S. had some of the best universities to study astronomy; so coming here was naturally my first choice.

The first place I looked at was actually Arizona State University (imagine that), and I received an invitation by an astronomer there to visit the university. I did, and although I loved the department and was very eager to study astronomy, my parents and I decided that 16 years old was a little too young to go off to another country for university (we have one less year of high school in Peru, so most kids graduate at 16 or 17). So, I stayed in Peru and studied the next best thing, physics. My goal was to do that and then apply for graduate school in astronomy in the U.S. Throughout college I tried to be as connected to astronomy as I could, joining the astronomy club, and looking for astronomy-related jobs in Peru that could get me started in research.

In my last year of university I began working for the astronomy division of the Peruvian Space Agency (then Comisión Nacional de Investigación y Desarrollo Aeroespacial - CONIDA), doing basic research in observational astronomy. During this time I learned about a planetary science workshop that was happening in Montevideo, Uruguay. This workshop was organized by the International Council for Science’s Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), and featured important NASA and ESA scientists who were involved with current planetary missions. It was during this workshop that I knew I would study Planetary Science. I remember Mike A’Hearn (then principal investigator for NASA’s Deep Impact mission to comet Tempel 1), eagerly describing his experience in the mission control room for Deep Impact just as the impactor was about to collide with the comet’s nucleus. I instantly thought: “I want to do that”. There was pretty much no turning back from that. I am now proud to be a part of a field that is actively pushing the boundaries of human-based exploration in the solar system. Being among the first to see images of another planet, of things that nobody has seen before, is extremely rewarding, and it’s what makes my job exciting, and worthwhile.

Why is your subject of study/research important to you?
Understanding climate change as a process that affects all planets in various ways, and for different reasons, is extremely important for understanding it here on Earth. Mars, like Earth, has climate cycles that are caused by changes in its tilt and orbit. However, on Mars, these changes are much more extreme than on Earth over geologic timescales. In addition, Mars has no vegetation, no large masses of liquid water, no animal life, a significantly thinner atmosphere, and no humans. Therefore, Mars serves as a simpler “laboratory” to study large scale causes and effects of planetary climate change. Better knowledge of Mars’ climate history and future, can help us understand the details of the more complicated system that is Earth’s climate, which can guide our own role in shaping our planet’s climate for the future. In addition, this can go both ways, the more we learn about Mars’ climate history, the better more we can learn about Earth’s, and the more we learn about Earth’s history, the more we can know about the origin of climate systems in the solar system as a whole, and our place within it.

What would you suggest to a young person to study if he/she is interested in planetary science?
There are many ways to become involved in planetary science. It is such a multi- disciplinary field that many careers can be applicable to its study, not just in science, but also in engineering, management, etc. My main piece of advice would be to get a rough idea of the job you would like to have within planetary science, and then get in contact with as many people as you can that have that job or one similar, and pick their brains. It’s important to not only know in a general sense what a certain career is about, but also what the day to day is like, and what the road to getting that “dream job” entails, so that you know whether or not you would be happy doing that job (this is my advice to anybody studying anything really). Most people will be more than glad to share their experiences with you.

As far as specific fields of study, in pure science, the most common majors for planetary scientists are physics, astronomy, geology, chemistry, applied mathematics, and more recently biology. These planetary scientists are the ones that drive the scientific goals of planetary exploration, and that use the spacecraft and telescope data to make discoveries that contribute to our overall knowledge in the field.

There are also a wide variety of engineering fields that could lead to a career in planetary science. Aerospace, mechanical, software, electrical and systems engineering are just a few of the branches of engineering that fit the planetary engineer profile. Planetary engineers are the ones in charge of building spacecraft and instruments, operating spacecraft, designing mission trajectories, etc.

Finally, there are also managers of large projects and institutions related to planetary science that lead the teams of scientists and engineers toward a common goal. The majority of these managers have some sort of science or engineering background, and end up getting involved in management because of their personal preferences after school or graduate school, and/or because of their leadership qualities and abilities to work with teams of people. If this is the type of job you think you would like, studying science or engineering is still the best way to go.

I’d also like to offer some advice to young students from developing countries that have an interest in planetary science and may be reading this, in particular from South America, since that’s where I’m from. In my experience, there is a misconception in developing countries that the vast majority of graduate studies in foreign institutions are extremely expensive and out of reach for most people. Although this may be true for some degrees, it is not true for most scientific fields, especially at the Ph.D. level. Most institutions will guarantee funding for your studies through a variety of different channels, such as teaching or research assistantships, third party grants, etc. My point with this is the following: If you are a young student from a developing country and are interested in working in planetary science, studying a science-related major in a local university and then pursuing graduate studies abroad is a perfect option for you, and one which may be closer to your reach than you might think. The most important thing is to go after what you want to do, what you are most passionate about, and work hard to get it. Everything else will fall into place.



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.