Ramy El Maarry

What’s your current position (and where) and what does your research/work focus on?
I currently work as a post-doctoral researcher in the Institute of Physics at the University of Bern, Switzerland. My main field of research is planetary geology and geomorphology with particular emphasis on Mars. However, my research interests extend also to small bodies in our solar system such as asteroids and comets.

With regards to Mars, my main features of interest are surface polygonal patterns. These patterns are developed when fractures or cracks are form on the ground (for a number of different reasons) and intersect to form polygonal networks that may occasionally evolve into beautiful geometric patterns. I am very fortunate to be a member of the HiRISE science team because HiRISE is able to image the surface of Mars in very high detail that allows me to study these interesting yet very small features, which would be almost impossible to do with any other camera currently in orbit around Mars.

What got you interested in planetary science?
I think that I have always been fascinated ever since I was a kid by two things: rocks and space!

I loved watching programs and reading books that showed the Earth in ancient times (obviously containing dinosaurs!) as well as pictures of our solar system. This fascination pulled me towards science when I was growing up. During high school, I learnt about a scientific field that combined my two passions: planetary geology. From that point on, I decided that this was going to be my career. I got into the faculty of Science in Cairo University, Egypt (where I am originally from) and earned a bachelor’ degree with a double major in geology and chemistry.

Knowing that it would be really hard for me to study planetary geology in my home country, I decided that I had to travel abroad. I joined a European Masters program that allowed me to earn a master’s degree in space technology as well as another one in astrophysics and planetary science while studying in Germany, Sweden and France. This was followed by a Ph.D. in Germany where I was fortunate to take an active part for the first time in a Mars mission: the Phoenix Lander. My doctoral studies were also my first encounter with HiRISE, a relation that has kept growing ever since!

Why is your subject of study/research important to you?
Learning more about how fractures or cracks develop on a surface gives us a lot of information about: a) what the surface is made of, and b) the climate when these fractures were formed. For instance, crack patterns that resemble mud cracks (but on a much bigger scale) may indicate the presence of certain clay minerals that usually form in lake beds after the lake has dried out. Therefore, identifying these ancient mud cracks (or using their more scientific name: desiccation cracks) points us to locations on the surface of Mars where ancient lakes were present and ancient life may have dwelt. Moreover, it indicates to us that the climate on Mars may have been warmer at times during the past.

Another important feature is the crack patterns that develop in grounds that are rich in water-ice and tend to form in cold climate. such polygons are very common in the high latitudes of Mars and give us a wealth of information about the amount of water ice in the ground, its depth and the climatic conditions. Therefore studying the ancient features of this type of polygonal cracks could tell us more about how the climate on Mars changes with time.

What would you suggest to a young person to study if he/she is interested in planetary science?
One of the really cool aspects about planetary science is its multi-disciplinary scope. Geologists, chemists, physicists, engineers, computer programers, even artists and lawyers can find themselves involved one way or another in planetary science. So my advice: pick a planetary science book and give it a read. See what inspires you. If it’s Mars or the Moon that you love, chances are you would like to be a geologist or a geochemist. If you enjoy reading about Venus, Jupiter, or Titan, it could indicate that you are interested in atmospheric sciences so perhaps physics or chemistry is the perfect starting point for you. Are you interested in the space missions themselves and their challenges, or the spacecrafts and their instruments? Then go for an engineering degree!

Bear in mind though, planetary science is truly an eternal classroom. You will always learn new things and you will continuously need to develop yourself and learn new techniques and tools as you help in pushing the frontiers of human knowledge and exploration. You may even need to pick an old textbook every once in a while. But hey, that’s why it never gets boring!

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.