Livio Tornabene

What’s your current position (and where) and what does your research/work focus on?
I’m currently a research scientist and adjunct professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Western University in Ontario, Canada, and a core faculty member of Western’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX). In addition, I am one of the six original HiRISE Targeting Specialists (HiTS) that was staffed during the primary science phase of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) mission. Since leaving Arizona in 2010, I have maintained my involvement in HiRISE as a science team member, and recently joined the Color and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) on ExoMars 2016 as a Co-Investigator through a joint collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

The focus of my research is on crater impacts as a geologic process. I try to improve our understanding of impact geology through remote sensing studies of craters on Mars (and the Moon). Despite the advantage of being able to visit impact structures on Earth, there is still a great advantage to studying craters on bodies like Mars and the Moon; that’s because the majority of Earth’s impacts are deeply eroded or buried — this is why they’re called impact “structures” and not impact “craters”! Most of the terrestrial impact structures no longer resemble craters that can be readily observed on the Earth’s Moon, Mars, etc. Therefore, detailed studies on Martian and lunar craters can give us clues regarding the “missing” components or gaps in the terrestrial record and thereby the impact process. I also use craters as a “tool” for understanding processes on Mars that may or may not be directly related to the impact process. This includes the petrogenesis (i.e., origin) and aqueous alteration of the Martian crust; this is because craters excavate into the subsurface and thereby provide a natural deep “probe” or “window” into the crust, which reveals rocks and minerals that may not be otherwise exposed at the surface. Craters can also be used as a “gauge” from which to measure various degradation processes that vary both spatially and temporally on Mars; this is because craters have a relatively consistent morphology (e.g., a raised rim and a central depression that has a depth that is a function of the crater rim diameter) — this allows us to predict the original shape and depth of a degraded crater, and therefore determine how much net erosion and deposition the crater has experienced since it has formed.

What got you interested in planetary science/working with HiRISE?
Planetary science called to me when I was very young. I specifically remember when I was about six or seven years old, I was walking with my mother on a moonless night in South Florida just after we moved from Brooklyn, New York. The town we moved to was just developing and very close to the Everglades, as such, it was free of the abundant light pollution that I was used to back in Brooklyn. I had never seen the Milky Way and so many stars in my life! I bombarded my poor mother with questions about the origin of the stars, the planets and the universe. From that night on, I was hooked on space! I spent many late nights looking through my telescope and watching the annual meteor showers. I had an annual subscription to Astronomy Magazine from sixth grade and all the way through university; and I was a member of the Planetary Society too! Thanks for putting up with my barrage of questions from that night mom, and not discouraging me to seek my own answers!

By the time I made it to the university, my interests were divided between astronomy and geology. Only by taking courses in each, and probing a bit deeper did I realize my interests aligned more with geology. Specifically, I was enthralled with the terrestrial planets — including our own. How did they form? How did the Earth’s fraternal planetary companions (including the Moon) compare and contrast with our beautiful planet? What about the missing millennia of Earth’s earliest history? These questions fascinated and intrigued me the most. To this day, I like to think I retain a child-like curiosity, and enthusiasm, when it comes to exploring the terrestrial bodies in our solar system.

Why is your subject of study/research important to you?
There is a fragile beauty and artful landscape that can be seen from above and from space, not just of Mars, but of Earth too! We’re often reminded of this when we have a window seat on a transcontinental flight or when we see the historic and inspirational images of Earth from space, from the Moon, from Mars, from Saturn, or even beyond our solar system. These remarkable and poignant historic images reminds us of how we belong to the Earth, and not the other way around; and that we need to care for her and for each other, in the hope of a better future — not only for us, but for all the Earth’s children. These images also inspire the human race to be mindful of who we are, give us a sense of our place in the Universe and what is really important in life. While, it is true that I have come to focus my studies on Mars, there is much information that we can gather about the conditions on the early Earth from studying Mars.

As I mentioned before, Mars provides us with the “missing history” of ancient Earth. Mars retains its most ancient cratered surfaces, which Earth has destroyed or almost completely overprinted over its geologic history. All that remains of Earth’s first 500 million years or so as planet are a few robust zircon grains; although these mineral grains tell much about the early Earth (e.g., when the crust and core, and oceans formed, etc.), there are still not rocks from that period of time that would provide more details regarding the early conditions on the surface? or even tell us when, where and how life first emerged on Earth. Of course, in some ways Mars and Earth are vastly different, but they do share a similar geologic heritage. How much like Earth was Mars in its ancient past? How different was it? Was it warm and wet or mostly cold and dry? As I learn about Mars, I feel that I gain understanding of some of the fundamentals of Earth’s beginning? and perhaps of its future. There are many Earth-challenges before us, not just scientifically, but also socially and ecologically. The more scientists understand how Earth works, the better off we are — and this invariably includes understanding the other terrestrial planets in our Solar System. I want to contribute to this understanding in my own small way and show others that studying the terrestrial planets gives us another lens to view our precious and fragile planet Earth.

What would you suggest to a young person to study if he/she is interested in planetary science?
My path to becoming a planetary scientist involved in space exploration missions was not straightforward. I’m fortunate to have ended up exactly where I dreamed about as a youth. Just before getting involved in my first spacecraft mission (Mars Odyssey in 2001), I believed that such involvement was only for the elite. My advice is to not allow such thinking to limit you. If you are passionate, enthusiastic and able to remain open to possibilities no matter where they may lead you, then you can be successful as a planetary scientist, or whatever you put your mind to! In essence, one word: perseverance. This means that no matter how many times you get knocked down or someone tells you, “You can’t,” or “You’re not good enough,” you get up, you work harder and you prove them wrong. Sure, it helps to possess the knowledge and the intelligence to achieve such academic goals, but it was perseverance at times, more than my abilities, that got me where I am today. Jump at opportunities to meet and talk with the big names in the field, and “go for it” with respect to any chances to be involved in space missions. There are public outreach events, internships, graduate funding, etc. Getting to know the people in the business has been one of the greatest assets for my career thus far — it has opened many doors to me that I thought were never possible!

Dream big and then follow those dreams? if you are passionate about what you want to do, it will come through in your work and dealings with the science community.

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.