Volume: 02, Issue: 01 01/14/2004 
Dr. R. Aileen Yingst
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Dr. Catherine Weitz
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Other Articles in This Issue:
Destination: Mars
Spirit Continues Explorations on Mars while Opportunity Races Forward
Exploring the Red Planet
Misunderstanding Mars
High School Students Land on Mars
Mars Explorer Lands in Classrooms
Bring Mars Activities into Your Classroom

Chatting About Mars

Mars has long been a point of fascination for amateurs and experts alike. Numerous attempts have been made to find out more about the enigmatic planet, but not much is known about the Martian surface composition or atmosphere, making Mars missions difficult. In recent chats sponsored by Space Explorers™, Inc., Mars specialists Dr. R. Aileen Yingst and Dr. Catherine Weitz addressed some of the many Mars-related questions raised by teachers and students in classrooms around the country.

“Mars is not a simple planet, any more than Earth is,” said Dr. Yingst, a planetary geologist who serves as Director of the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium. “The difference is that we have to anticipate all the problems we might run into before we know very much about what we’re doing.”

The landing of NASA’s Spirit rover, however, has provided hope for Mars scientists across the country. With the second rover, Opportunity, due to land Jan. 25, great potential exists for Mars exploration.

“After the failures of Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999, the successful MER landing indicates that the Mars Program is back on track,” said Dr. Weitz, Program Scientist for the Mars Exploration Rover and Mars Express missions. “Now with new MER data from the surface, our understanding of Mars should improve drastically, and this should also help in the design of future landers to Mars.”

Dr. Weitz said she was drawn to Mars because it resembles Earth in many ways. “The volcanoes, channels, rocks, wind streaks, layered sediments, etc., all remind me of features I have seen on Earth, so it is interesting to me to see them all on Mars too,” she said. “The features that appear to have been produced by water activity also interest me because of the possibility that Mars was warmer and wetter in the past, perhaps more like Earth is today. In addition, the possibility of life on Mars is a wonderful endeavor to study, and the thought of actually finding evidence for past or current life would be a powerful finding for humanity.”

This interest brought Dr. Weitz where she is today. She is a visiting scientist at NASA Headquarters from her home institution, the Planetary Science Institute in Ariz. After receiving her Bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, where she majored in Geology and conducted research on Martian sand dunes, Dr. Weitz obtained a Master’s degree from Caltech in Mars and Earth research. She then worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on both the Magellan mission to Venus and the Space Shuttle Imaging Radar-C mission. She left JPL to return to graduate school and earned her PhD in Planetary Geology from Brown University. Her dissertation was based on Clementine remote sensing data of the Moon, combined with studies of Apollo 17 lunar soil samples.

Upon completing her doctorate in 1998, Dr. Weitz returned to JPL as a National Research Council Associate. She worked on the Mars 2001 mission and began research on Martian volcanism. She then transferred her Associateship to NASA Headquarters and soon became a Program Scientist in the Mars Exploration Program. In addition to her management responsibilities at NASA Headquarters, she also spends time performing research on layered deposits located within the Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars.

To read a transcript of Dr. Weitz’s chat about the Mars Exploration Rover and Mars Express missions, please visit:

Dr. Yingst has also been fascinated by space science for as long as she can remember. This led her to a wide array of experiences in the planetary geology field. She served on NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter and was a member of the Mars Polar Lander, Clementine Lunar Reconnaissance, and Mars Pathfinder Camera teams. She spent two years with the Mars Atmospheric and Geologic Imaging Team at the University of Arizona, working as a geologist on the Mars Pathfinder and Mars Polar Lander missions.

Currently Dr. Yingst is Director of NASA’s Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium, based at the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay, where she continues her research in the surface composition of Mars and the interior workings of the Moon. Dr. Yingst’s graduate research focused on issues of lunar volcanism and the surfaces of icy satellites, particularly Ganymede.

The transcript for Dr. Yingst’s chat about Mars, the Moon, and Jupiter’s moons can be viewed at:

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