Shane Byrne, associate professor, Planetary sciences, UA
What’s your current position and what does your research focus on?
I’m a co-investigator on the HiRISE team and an associate professor here at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. I have the opportunity to work with a lot of graduate students as well as do my own research. Most of our work focuses on ice on Mars (both water ice and carbon dioxide ice). These ices move around quite a bit in response to climate changes on Mars. By looking at where these ices are now and how they change from year to year we can learn about the recent Martian climate.

What got you interested in planetary science?
I got interested in astronomy as a kid when I found a tiny, ancient, dusty book on constellations in my grandparents house (I still have that book!). I was amazed to find out in high school that you could actually go study that in college and once I knew that there was never a question in my mind that I would go do it. I thought I would be a planetary astronomer and use telescopes to study the outer solar system, where few spacecraft can be sent, and that’s the mindset I had when I started graduate school.

But something happened at the start of my graduate studies. I got involved in picking the landing site for the Mars Polar Lander. We were just starting to get the first data back from an orbiting satellite about the Martian surface for 20 years. It was enormously exciting when every new image or piece of data revealed something that no one had ever seen before. The Polar Lander landing site was also especially exotic by Earth’s standards so I got hooked on using spacecraft data to study planetary surfaces. Unfortunately Mars Polar Lander ended up crash landing and was a total write-off, but the experience changed what I wanted to do permanently.

Why is your subject of study/research important to you?
Climate change is a big deal for us here on the Earth (especially here in the southwestern US). We’re on the verge of handing a horrible mess to our grandkids to clean up. On Mars the climate changes all the time not because of human activities, but instead because Jupiter’s gravity changes the orbit and tilt of the planet continuously. Mars is like a lab where we can study what effects climate change has on ice distribution and what feedback effects might exist, etc. In many ways Mars is simpler than the Earth to understand as there as no oceans, no vegetation, no people and much less cloud cover. If we can understand the Martian climate then we’d be in a better position to understand what is happening today on the Earth, hopefully before it’s too late.

What would you suggest to a young person to study if he/she is interested in planetary science?
There are many avenues into planetary science and even planetary science in only one part of the larger enterprise of space exploration. I’m a scientist and so my path into this was a scientific one. You can study physics, chemistry, geology, biology, astronomy or the atmosphere and move into planetary science. But there are other paths too: we need engineers to build spacecraft and instruments, computer scientists to make all the hardware work, operations people to fly the spacecraft and send commands and managers to run the show.

I think my biggest suggestion would be get involved in something and try it on for size. I think you can only really know if you enjoy something by doing it and many people end up being surprised by what it is that they enjoy. So if you have a nearby planetarium, NASA center or planetary science/astronomy/geology department, then bang on some doors and ask if anyone needs a research assistant. Doing one thing doesn’t mean you’ll do that forever, but it does generate opportunities to get involved in other things and eventually you’ll find what it is that you want. The key step is being proactive and making the initial opportunity happen.

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.