James Wray

What’s your current position (and where) and what does your research/work focus on?
I’m a Co-Investigator on the HiRISE science team, and also an Assistant Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, GA. I teach courses on the physics, the compositions, and the astrobiological potential of planets, and on how we can measure those things from a distance. My research covers a similar set of topics, with a heavy focus on Mars; I want to know how wet it has been, when and where on the planet, and whether that water’s chemistry and persistence might have sufficed to create habitable environments for life as we know it. I’ve been very fortunate to pursue this work in collaboration with several talented students at Georgia Tech, and we’ve recently begun asking and answering similar questions about the compositions of Jupiter’s and Saturn's icy moons, too.

What got you interested in planetary science/working with HiRISE?
I was incredibly fortunate to “grow up with HiRISE” during my graduate studies. I was at JPL during MRO’s successful Mars orbit insertion, and shortly afterward visited Cornell University where I met Steve Squyres, a HiRISE co-investigator who was looking for a student to come study the Martian surface in unprecedented detail. That was an offer I couldn’t refuse! It was such a thrill to join a team of the world’s top Mars experts who could tell you where the most interesting places on Mars were, and then point a spacecraft camera there and acquire beautiful, fascinating new photos that answered some nagging questions while also prompting new ones. I was hooked and have been a Mars data junkie ever since.

I realized partway through graduate school that combining the ultra-finescale images of HiRISE with compositional maps from MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) was an especially powerful way to address questions about Mars’ environmental history. Infrared spectra from CRISM could tell you what minerals have formed (indicating the conditions that formed them), while textures visible with HiRISE recorded how and in what order those minerals were deposited. Whereas rovers provide an exquisitely detailed view of highly localized areas of Mars—and I have had the great fortune to also participate in all three NASA rover missions this century—HiRISE and CRISM can look anywhere on Mars, allowing us to see “the big picture.”

Why is your subject of study/research important to you?
I think that space exploration inspires the best in us all. We are seeking answers to some of the oldest and most fundamental questions humans have asked: how did our planet, our solar system, our galaxy come to be, and are there other living worlds out there? Answering these questions requires imaginative use of limited resources and a determination to persevere despite tremendous obstacles; developing these qualities as a society seems certain to help us in the long run. Effective teamwork across disciplinary, cultural, and geographic boundaries is an essential element of all space missions, and if we can work together in this context, then why not in others too?

I am currently 2nd Vice Chair of the Geological Society of America’s Planetary Geology Division, and at our Society’s annual meetings the Planetary Division booth is always one of the most popular spots in the exhibit hall. Students, senior researchers, preschoolers and their parents all stop by to admire HiRISE images, hold a piece of Mars in their hands, and ask questions about the planets. Space exploration resonates with something deep within many of us, and if it can inspire a few more folks to pursue a technical education, or even just to be more curious and think more critically about the world around them, then that's an end toward which I’m proud to contribute even a little.

What would you suggest to a young person to study if he/she is interested in planetary science?
The great thing about planetary science is that it welcomes—in fact, it requires—a wide range of disciplines, so you can come into it from many different backgrounds. If physics or chemistry are your favorite classes in school, then take more of those. If you prefer to do your science outdoors, then geology might be the perfect choice. My own degrees are in astronomy and astrophysics, but almost any science or math major can provide relevant expertise. Planetary science also needs top engineers to build and operate our spacecraft, and computer programmers to command them. And we need managers, lawyers, accountants on our teams as well.

I guess what I am really suggesting is to follow your individual passion. This may sound like a cliché, but space exploration is hard, full of failed attempts prior to eventual successes. In addition, the road to becoming a professional scientist is a long one, involving many years of school, and often cross-country moves in pursuit of rare job openings, which won’t pay as well as some jobs outside of pure science research. But if you are doing something you love, then all of these are very small costs to pay.

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.