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UB has largest presence at planetary meeting in recent memory

Voyager 1 image of Jupiter's moon, Io. Tracy Gregg is presenting her research on Loki Patera, the largest volcano on Io, at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Photo: NASA/JPL/USGS

By LAURA HERNANDEZ

Published March 23, 2016

“Although UB’s geology department is internationally known for its strong volcanology program, it has been less well known for its planetary science — but clearly that’s changing.”
Tracy Gregg, associate professor
Department of Geology

For the first time in recent memory, UB has a significant presence at the largest conference for planetary geologists.

The renowned Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, which takes place this week in The Woodlands, Texas, brings together international specialists in petrology, geochemistry, geophysics, geology and astronomy to present the latest research results in planetary science. Sponsored by the Lunar and Planetary Institute and the NASA Johnson Space Center, it provides a venue for scientists to discuss scientific studies of all the planets in the solar system, including asteroids and comets.  

Tracy Gregg, associate professor in the Department of Geology, has been attending the conference for more than 25 years. “It has become almost like a family reunion for me,” says Gregg, who has been studying volcanoes within the solar system and is presenting her research on Loki Patera, the largest volcano on Jupiter’s moon Io at the conference.

But this year she will be joined by four graduate students, which Gregg says is the largest group of UB students to attend the conference since she began teaching at the university in 1998.

“Although UB’s geology department is internationally known for its strong volcanology program, it has been less well known for its planetary science — but clearly that’s changing,” Gregg says.           

The students — Jeff Green, Christian Venturino, Paul Moretti and Iana Shmelkina — all are in the last semester of their MS thesis research.  

At the conference, they will present their work to more than 3,000 scientists from all around the world.   

This Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) colorized topographic map shows the broad, low-lying shield volcano Syrtis Major Planum (left), just north of the equator in the eastern hemisphere of Mars. UB grad student Christian Venturino is presenting his work focusing on the volcanic evolution of Syrtis Major at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Photo: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Arizona State University

Green and Venturino have been researching volcanoes within the solar system. Green has been working on identifying small volcanoes on the northern plains of Mars. Venturino’s work focuses on the volcanic evolution of Syrtis Major, a volcano on the surface of Mars.

“Their work helps us to understand how the abundance and distribution of Mars’ internal heat has changed with time,” Gregg says.

Moretti will discuss his work examining a specific type of impact crater on Mars in search of evidence of subsurface water ice in the pre-impact surface. His work could help identify distribution of subsurface water through time on Mars, she says.

Gregg notes that where there is both water and a source of heat, there is the potential for life to evolve and persist on Mars.  

Shmelkina’s research focuses on two different planets. Her work compares the shapes of lava-formed channels on Venus with drainage networks on Titan, Saturn’s moon. Titan contains many, or possibly all, of the precursors for life, possibly similar to Earth before life evolved here.

“Her work is directly related to constraining the behavior of potentially life-supporting materials,” Gregg says.

The UB students’ research could help NASA in achieving its goals of determining whether life ever existed on Mars, as well as knowing where conditions exist that could make it suitable for life to exist elsewhere in the solar system, Gregg says.