Matthew Golombek, UMass Amherst Alumnus, to Speak about His Role in NASA Mars Mission

AMHERST, Mass. - Matthew P. Golombek, the University of Massachusetts graduate who is the chief scientist on NASA’s Mars Pathfinder mission, will present a lecture on the mission on Friday, Sept. 12, at 4 p.m. in Mahar Auditorium on the UMass campus. The presentation, which is hosted by the office of the dean of natural sciences and mathematics, is free and open to the public, and will include a question-and-answer period.

Golombek holds 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. His comments on the mission have appeared everywhere from The New York Times and The Boston Globe to CNN and Newsweek, and he has worked with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the mission since its inception five years ago. The mission is primarily a demonstration of new technologies, including the free-ranging surface rover Sojourner, for eventual use in future missions to Mars. Scientists are trying to learn more about the early environment on Mars by studying ancient rocks. They are also hoping to determine whether water once existed on early Mars, potentially allowing life to develop.

Golombek 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. He studied under retired professor George McGill of the geosciences department. McGill has said that his former student’s background in terrestrial and interplanetary geology made him a good choice to head up the Pathfinder mission. "We try to give students a good foundation in both types of geology," McGill said. "It’s critical to have a foundation in terrestrial geology." The geosciences faculty has a broad range of interests and expertise including structural geology, igneous and metamorphic geology, volcanology, mineralogy, marine geology, glacial geology, and environmental geology. Nathan Bridges, another former student of McGill’s, is also at work on the mission. In his doctoral research, Bridges compared unusual volcanic land formations on earth with similar structures on Venus. His earlier research included work focused on the planet Mars.

"It doesn''t get any better than being among the first geologists to investigate the surface geology on Mars with a rover," says Golombek. Although Sojourner was designed to last a minimum of one week, scientists are optimistic that it will last as long as a year. "I hope I’ll be driving a rover on Mars for a long, long time," Golombek says.