NASA Goddard intern Sebastian Fischer crouches in front of Meteor Crater.Credit: NASA/GSFC/Aaron Silver
NASA Goddard intern Sebastian Fischer crouches in front of Meteor Crater.

Job Profile

Planetary Scientists

Planetary scientists study planets and moons like Mars and Titan to try to understand what they are made of and how they are formed.


Relate job titles: Geologist, Geochemist, Volcanologist, Seismologist, Hydrologist, Structural Geologist, Geomorphologist, Atmospheric Scientist, Geoscientist

Planetary scientists study celestial bodies such as planets (like Mars and Jupiter) and moons (like Europa and Titan) to try to understand what they are made of and how they are formed.

They will study many features of a planet, including its gravity, magnetic fields, and the geologic processes that have changed it over periods of time that range from days to millions, even billions, of years.

Topics studied by planetary scientists include:

  • Process Studies and Systems Analysis: Processes like weathering (the wearing away of rock by wind, water and ice, or chemicals), the formation of soil, and the flow of water.
  • Climatic Geomorphology: How changes in the weather over short and long periods of time cause changes in a planet’s landscape.
  • Geomorphological Mapping: Creation of maps of features on a planet to help determine the processes that created the landscape.
  • Tectonic Geomorphology: The way landforms, landscapes, and plate tectonics work together to create surface features.
  • Geodesy: A planet’s size, shape, gravity, rotation, and tides.
  • Seismology: Earthquakes, both on a planet’s surface and in its interior, to learn about the planet’s composition and to evaluate earthquake hazards and locate faults.
  • Magnetism: Magnetic fields and their effects on heat flow and fluid motion in a planet’s interior.
  • Hydrogeology & Oceanography: The movement and quantity of water in soils and rocks, and the  currents, circulation, and atmospheric interaction of oceans.
  • Atmospheric Physics: A planet’s atmosphere and related features such as its climate

Their work often involves travelling to locations on Earth that have similar geology to the planet they are studying – for example the Moroccan desert is often used as an analogue for Mars. Samples are tested in labs to examine their composition and structure.

They will analyse data from remote sensors like satellites and probe using computers and the laws of physics to explore deep within a planet’s interior and to examine its surface and atmosphere.

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Working Hours & Conditions

Most planetary scientists are academics and work for universities and publicly funded organisations.

They work between 35 and 40 hours a week, Monday to Friday, but might sometimes have to work late into the night to finish a report by a deadline, or to monitor an experiment as it runs. Scientists spend a lot of time working in offices with computers analysing data from remote sensors like satellites and probes, and will also work with equipment in workshops and laboratories to perform tests on geological samples.

They may also go on trips around the world to do fieldwork (taking measurements and collect samples in geologically interesting locations), visit other research facilities, and attend conferences.


Routes into Planetary Science

Planetary scientists typically study Geology, Geochemistry, Geophysics, or other related subjects typical of Earth Science/Geology degrees. However, some universities offer undergraduate degrees in Planetary Sciences. Postgraduate degrees in Planetary Sciences may not be numerous. However, there are many Master degrees in subject with a strong flavor and extremely related to planetary sciences, such as Remote Sensing, Geophysics (for the study of planetary interiors), Geochemistry (for the study of the composition of other planetary bodies), just to name a few. Planetary Science is a multidisciplinary area.Then, the next step is obtaining a doctorate.

Experience of fieldwork and laboratory work is highly recommended to gain hands-on experience. This can be gain through summer work-field experiences, work of thesis (from under-graduate to doctorate).

Author

Joseph Dudley

Joseph studied Aeronautical Engineering at Imperial College London, and created SpaceCarers.uk.

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