Dr. Philip Christensen, professor of planetary geology at Arizona State University, carries a piece of Mars with him. Actually, it is a bit of a meteorite from Mars that was found in Africa, but to him it is still a bit of Mars. You can hear the excitement in his voice when he shares it with children. “The next time you look into the sky and see Mars, remember you held a part of it,” he says.
Dr. Christensen’s interest in Mars started when he was a child. He reports that he talked his mom into letting him stay home from school (when he was in sixth grade) to watch the first images of Mars coming from the Mariner 4 spacecraft on TV. Later, he went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and remembers seeing the Surveyor spacecraft that eventually landed on the moon. Although he remained intensely interested in Mars, he admits it never occurred to him that people actually got jobs studying Mars. It wasn’t until he was a senior college student at UCLA, and working on a project with Mariner 9 images of Mars, did he realize that he could become a scientist and study Mars as a career.
Dr. Christensen and his team at Arizona State University were responsible for developing THEMIS (thermal emission imaging system) cameras that were on Mars Odyssey. He is also Co-investigator on the Mars Exploration Rover missions, and built the TES (Thermal Emission Spectrometer) carried on the Mars Global Surveyor. Part of his research is looking for evidence of water in the minerals and rocks of Mars.
You may wonder, does Dr. Christensen wear a laboratory coat for this work? No, but he does have to wear a special white suit that covers his entire body when he builds his cameras to prevent contaminating the sensitive equipment.
Hearing Dr. Christensen speak recently, he definitely wants children to know what it took him so long to discover, that anyone can become a scientist. He also wants them to know that science is fun. “We build things and send them to Mars. It’s a fun job.”
Because of Dr. Christensen’s commitment to outreach for children, he has been active in a number of educational programs. Here are links to a few.
The Mars Student Imaging Project allows teams of students from fifth grade and up to participate in authentic Mars imaging research.
Passport to Knowledge has a number of awesome Hands-On Activities, including egg drop projects to simulate Mars landings, rocket science 101, and activities to build your own Mars Rovers from junk.
Rock Around the World allows children to send a rock to ASU to be analyzed (as described in a recent post in this blog).
If you would like to see pictures of Dr. Christensen and learn more, the Phil Christensen Biography is a good starting place.