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Highlighted Team Member
Robert Strom, Science Team Co-Investigator
"Mercury Science: From Mariner 10 to MESSENGER"

Robert Strom has worked in the field of lunar and planetary surfaces for more than four decades, but when he attended college in the mid-1950s, there was no such field as planetary geology or “planetology."

“Mostly scientists focused on the stars, the sun and the galaxies,” says Strom, 72. “Back then, scientists has these crude ideas about the structure of other planets. They weren’t considered interesting; in fact, there was very little in the literature about them. What was there was certainly sketchy.”

So his first job out of graduate school was as a petroleum geologist for an oil company. “Not as sexy as the planets, I’d say; but that’s what I was trained to do,” he says. The company dispatched Strom to Pakistan to do oil exploration: conducting geological surveys of the Chittagong Hill Tracks of Bangladesh, India and the Arakan Yoma of Burma, and drilling test wells in the plains of Bangladesh. “The Hill tracks and Arakan Yoma were largely unknown territory at that time, and inhabited by natives who rarely came in contact with outside people,” Strom says. “I had adventures totally unrelated to my job with snakes, tigers, elephants and head-hunters … that’s right head-hunters!”

While in Pakistan, Strom came across Patrick Moore’s “Guide to the Moon,” first published in 1953. It was a slim, one-volume summary of the geography, geology and nature of the moon, Strom says. “Moore had a lot of crazy ideas at the time, but I thought, ‘that would be fun to do … to study the moon.’” And as luck would have it, the University of California, Berkeley was looking for a geologist to help them design an instrument to measure the elemental composition of the moon.

Strom worked on that project for two years, and subsequently doggedly pursued his interest in the study of planetary surfaces. He began to follow the work of Gerard C. Kuiper, the so-called Father of Planetary Science who, among other discoveries, predicted the existence of the Kuiper belt in 1951.

Kuiper founded the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in 1960. “He was about the only astronomer back then who was looking at the moon and the planets,” Strom says. “I wrote him at Arizona and asked if he had a post available. In 1963, he invited me to come out and talk and offered me a job. I’ve been there ever since.”

Shortly after that, the galaxy opened up. The Mariner 4 spacecraft, launched on July 14, 1965, sent back the first-ever close-up images of Mars. Almost instantly, the Red Planet, and by extension the other planets, became objects worthy of further study, and Strom sunk his teeth into exploring the surfaces and interiors of the planets. Over the decades he’s worked on several space flight programs, including Apollo 8, 10 and 11 (Moon); Mariner 10 (Venus/Mercury); the Voyager missions to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune; and now MESSENGER.

As Strom tracks MESSENGER’s progress toward Mercury – a place he refers to as “pure hell,” in terms of temperature – he’s turned some of his attention toward another place that’s heating up: Earth. He’s just finished work on a book on global warming, tentatively titled: “Hot House: Climate Change and the Human Condition.”
“The amount of studies that have been done on this issue is almost overwhelming,” he says. “There’s no doubt that [global warming] is happening and that humans are causing it.”
He was inspired to write the book after the release of a 2001 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that predicted that unless we curtailed air pollution, the long- and short-term effects of global warming would worsen, causing horrific implications for Earth, such as a decrease in world-wide food production, rising sea levels and increased droughts and floods.

His book summarizes the issue, going back 700 million years to the present. “I worry about what my grandchildren will face in about 50 or so years,” he says. “That’s why I had to write this book.”

His foray into global warming is really not that much of a stretch from his true love: the planets. “Planetary geology has taught me to look at planets as a whole,” he says. “Even the oil exploration I did early in my career involved looking at an element of Earth, the planet. And when you look at Earth as a whole, you have to look at temperature and environment and ecosystem and the like; it’s part of that planet’s geology.”

By: Paulette Campbell, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

About 30 years ago in early1976 the Mariner 10 science team had a meeting at JPL to discuss the results of the Mariner 10 flybys of Mercury, and to begin initial plans for a Mercury orbiter. Mariner 10 was a reconnaissance mission intended to explore Mercury for the first time and gather enough information on this unknown planet to prepare for an orbiter mission to explore the planet in depth. We knew there were trajectories by Venus and Mercury that would slow the spacecraft enough to put it in orbit with a conventional retro-rocket. At that time I never dreamed I would have to wait 32 years before I would next lay eyes on spacecraft images of the planet, or 35 years before I would see a spacecraft orbit Mercury.

The reasons it has taken so long for another Mercury mission is because the planet superficially resembles the Moon, and because a Mercury orbiter would be very expensive. At that time people were examining images from the Mariner 9 Mars orbiter (1971) and the new close-up Viking orbiter (1975) images. They were seeing fantastic surface features similar to some on Earth plus evidence of past water on the planet. They thought the money for a very expensive Mercury orbiter could be better spent on Mars or other planets.

Finally, we will be able to explore Mercury in depth with the very sophisticated MESSENGER spacecraft and answer many of the questions that have been nagging at me for over 30 years. These include the origin of its enormous iron core, the surface composition, the origin of its magnetic field and what it say about the interior, what is on 55% of the planet not seen by Mariner 10, and many more, including implications for the origin and evolution of all the terrestrial planets. I cannot express enough how thrilled I am to be a part the MESSENGER mission, and finally get a chance to revisit one of the least known planets in the Solar System.

--Statement by R. Strom about Mariner 10 and MESSENGER

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