SBU’s Tim Glotch works to understand how Mars evolved

SBU’s Tim Glotch works to understand how Mars evolved

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Glotch studies how water altered Mars’ surface; wife Deanne Rogers studies how Mars’ crust formed

Tim Glotch has his head high above the clouds, but his wife, Deanne Rogers doesn’t mind — she does too. An associate professor in the Geosciences Department at Stony Brook, Glotch met Rogers, an assistant professor in the same department, when they were graduate students at Arizona State University.

After forming a match made in the heavens, the two scientists moved to Selden and started raising a family that includes two preschool children.

Glotch studies rocks and minerals on Mars by examining data from orbiting satellites. He’s interested in how water altered the surface of Mars. Rogers, meanwhile, is trying to understand how the crust of Mars formed.

Recently, Glotch shared good news with his planetary partner. The National Science Foundation awarded him the Faculty Early Career Development Award. The recognition includes a five-year grant for $494,000 that supports his research, allowing him to add a post-doctoral researcher and a graduate student to his lab.

“It’s a fantastically exciting opportunity,” Glotch said. It allows him to delve deeper into the spectroscopy that he has used to study the makeup of minerals on Mars and the moon.

By looking at the surfaces, Glotch tries to piece together how Mars and the moon became what they are. He studies the minerals in inactive volcanoes and at impact craters to come up with models for how these orbiting bodies might have changed over time.

“I’m trying to understand how Mars evolved,” he explained. “How did basaltic rocks (like some of the ones in Hawaii) get there and how did liquid water change their minerals.”

Glotch recently took a trip to Hawaii, where he looked at rocks that have Martian cousins millions of miles away. He expects the interest in Mars to build from now through August, when the rover Curiosity is scheduled to land.

Glotch hopes to submit a paper for publication soon about a Martian volcano called Syrtis Major. It’s called a shield volcano, which means it’s a broad, flat volcano made from basaltic lava.

When he looked at the “squiggly lines” from the spectral data of the volcano, he noticed basaltic rocks and carbonate decomposition products. The carbonates might help explain where the atmosphere Mars might have had billions of years ago has gone.

“The carbonates could sequester a lot of an ancient atmosphere,” he offered. While this is indirect evidence, it’s an exciting step in understanding the history of the Red Planet.
At the same time, Glotch is also studying the moon. As talk of returning to the moon in the next decade builds, Glotch had an unusual companion on his recent trip to Hawaii: astronaut Jeanette Epps. She wanted to see how geologists work in the field and gain an understanding of the kinds of problems planetary geologists and volcanologists address by working in a volcanic terrain.

In recent years, Glotch’s approach to the moon has yielded interesting data.

“When we first looked at the data, we saw these squiggly lines that were fundamentally different than anything else we’d seen on the moon before,” he said. “That was very exciting.”

Those lines were examples of silica rich volcanoes, which are evident in places like Mt. St. Helens. On Earth, they form as a result of plate tectonics. The moon has no such underlying shifting land masses.

Glotch believes basaltic underplating could explain the presence of the silicon dioxide on the moon. In that case, basaltic magma didn’t rise to the surface, but rather melted the crust around it. Because the silicon dioxide was buoyant, it rose to the surface.

The Stony Brook associate professor is developing a workshop for high school science teachers that will allow them to work with lunar data. He recommended a step-wise approach to generate interest in the moon.

“The easiest way to start is to show a picture of a volcano on the moon,” he offered. Teachers can compare those images to volcanoes on Earth. Students who want to know more can look at remote sensing and study images the eye can’t see to understand the composition of rocks and minerals.

As for life in the Glotch home, he said it’s been incredibly valuable to share his passion for his work with his wife, and to lean on her for support. She can commiserate on one of the least glamorous parts of being a scientist: writing and submitting proposals on deadline.

Even with some overlap in their work, looking up into the skies leaves the two scientists with plenty of space to define their own interests.

“There’s so much to do, there’s plenty of room for everybody,” offered Rogers.