Matt Chojnacki, planetary geologist and freestyle aerial Olympic skier
What’s your current position?
I am a planetary geologist who has been involved with the exploration and scientific investigation of Mars using data robotic spacecraft data for the past decade. Here at the University of Arizona, I am the HiRISE postdoctoral research associate working with HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen and the rest of his team. We provide mission support by processing new images and data analysis from HiRISE along with other data sets in an attempt to better understand the Red Planet. I also work with camera payload upload leads in targeting specific sites of geologic interest for my own investigations in addition to targeting public suggestions.

Prior to science I had a career as a freestyle aerial skier on the U.S. Ski Team where I participated in the 1998 Olympics, three world championships, and earned several world records. Although skiing and science seems like they are very different, both require a persistent work ethic and an element of creativity to do or discover something that hasn’t been done or found before. I have been extremely fortunate to thrive and make a living at both.

What got you interested in planetary science/working with HiRISE?
I have always had a passion for the exploration of space using human and robotic spacecraft. My parent’s bookshelf included a National Geographic book entitled the “Solar System” which had descriptions, images, and artist conceptions from early planetary missions like the Viking mission to Mars. I can remember reading the book so many times the binder wore thin. As a physics undergraduate at the University of Colorado, I selected several planetary science electives and was fortunate to find two excellent professors and planetary scientists willing to serve as mentors to me. At that point I started to work on geologic studies of Mars using several spacecraft data sets. A few years after I started working in the field, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter went into Mars orbit carrying the HiRISE camera – after the first HiRISE images were returned I knew that instrument was something very special. Working on the HiRISE team is a fantastic opportunity.

Why is this work important to you?
My recent research has focused on the geologic, morphologic, and climatic evolutions of the Red Planet. More specifically, I study dynamic surface processes that are currently modifying the Martian landscape. Once thought to possess a near static surface dominated by impact events much like our moon, Mars is now known to host numerous dynamic processes. Changes are most dramatic at the higher latitudes where polar residual caps constantly grow and shrink with seasonal carbon dioxide and water ice coverage. Wind-driven sand dunes and ripples migrate across the surface, while dust devils remove ever-falling surface dust. And most recently, the discovery of recurring slope lineae (RSL) (possible water seeps) forming and fading on warm Martian slopes demonstrates we have much to learn about one of our nearest planetary neighbors. Studying these phenomena not only provide insight into the current conditions and climate on Mars, but also teaches us about terrestrial planets such as Earth.

What would you suggest to a young person to study if he/she is interested in planetary science?
It is imperative that young students interested in planetary science to focus on learning math and science skills. The formation and evolution of planets and their moons is dictated by physical processes that can be best-understood using math and science. Additionally, every good scientist need to learn how to communicate science to their peers and the public, making English and writing classes vital as well. Most importantly is that you find something in the sciences, planetary or otherwise, that sparks your interest and passion.



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.