UMass Amherst Alumnus Plays Lead Role as Chief Scientist for Mars Pathfinder Mission

AMHERST, Mass. - A University of Massachusetts graduate is the chief scientist on NASA’s Mars Pathfinder mission. Matthew Golombek, who has worked with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the mission since its inception five years ago, studied the geology of Mars, Earth, and the moon while earning his master’s and doctoral degrees in geology from the University in 1978 and 1981, respectively.

Golombek has overall responsibility for facilitating all scientific experiments conducted on the mission, which represents NASA’s first return to the Red Planet since the Viking landings during the 1970s. The mission is primarily a demonstration of new technologies, including the free-ranging surface rover Sojourner, for eventual use in future missions to Mars. Pathfinder is delivering a series of scientific instruments to the surface of the Red Planet to investigate the structure of the Martian atmosphere, surface meteorology, and geology, and the form, structure, and elemental composition of Martian rocks and soil. In addition, scientists will study the rotational and orbital dynamics of Mars. The mission was launched late last year and scientists hope to conduct experiments on the planet’s surface through August.

Golombek studied lunar geology in earning his master’s degree, using photographs and studies made of the moon during earlier NASA missions. He analyzed a section of the Rio Grande rift in northern New Mexico during his doctoral research. Those findings were published in several scientific journals. He worked at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, before joining NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in the 1980s.

While at UMass, Golombek also studied the geology of Mars and Ganymede (one of Jupiter’s moons). Golombek studied under professor emeritus George McGill in what is now the department of geosciences. McGill says his former student is a structural geologist whose field work has given him a solid background in analyzing the Martian surface, which scientists believe was washed by a massive flood billions of years ago.

McGill conducted NASA-funded research on planetary and lunar geology for about 25 years, and served on the science team for the Pioneer Venus mission in the 1970s, and for the Magellan mission to Venus completed four years ago. He has conducted a number of research projects on Martian geology over the years, and is currently funded to prepare four geological maps and interpret the geological history of a portion of Mars.