UB planetary scientist serves on national Panel on Mars

​Taken on March 5, 2021, this color-calibrated image from a Navigation Camera aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover shows tracks from the rover’s first drive (darker marks in the foreground) and an area scoured by the Mars 2020 mission’s descent stage rockets (lighter-colored area in the middle ground). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech, available for download via NASA.

Tracy Gregg was a member of the Mars panel for the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey, which identifies future research and exploration priorities

Release Date: April 22, 2022

Portrait of Tracy Gregg.
The Mars Sample Return mission was "a top priority in the previous decadal survey, and the present survey emphasizes the essential importance of getting samples from Mars back to Earth for robust analyses."
Tracy Gregg, associate professor of geology
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — When it comes to the exploration of our solar system, what should the country’s priorities be over the next decade?

University at Buffalo planetary geologist Tracy Gregg had the chance to contribute her expertise and insights to help answer this question as part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023-2032.

Gregg, PhD, associate professor of geology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, served on the Panel on Mars, one of six panels providing topical input to the survey’s steering committee. She is an expert on planetary geology, including volcanology. She has a particular interest in volcanoes on Mars and Venus, and in volcanic activity elsewhere in the solar system.

According to the National Academies’ website, the survey, released on April 19, “highlights key science questions, identifies priority missions, and presents a comprehensive research strategy that includes both planetary defense and human exploration. The report also recommends ways to support the profession as well as the technologies and infrastructure needed to carry out the science.”

In a Q&A, Gregg discusses the decadal survey and how a college assignment first inspired her love for the Red Planet:

This mosaic of Mars is a compilation of images captured by the Viking Orbiter 1. The center of the scene shows the entire Valles Marineris canyon system, more than 2,000 miles (3,000 kilometers) long, 370 miles (600 kilometers) wide and 5 miles (8 kilometers) deep, extending from Noctis Labyrinthus, the arcuate system of graben to the west, to the chaotic terrain to the east. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech, available for download via NASA.

Q: What is the purpose of the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey?

Gregg: “The decadal survey serves as a roadmap for NASA and its researchers for the coming years. It’s filled with recommendations on how NASA should focus its resources in the coming decade. From a researcher’s perspective, it serves as an essential reference: Every proposed research project and mission for the next 10 years needs to tie back into the recommendations in the decadal survey .”

Q: You were part of the survey’s Mars panel. What are some of the interesting priorities for Mars in the survey?

Gregg: “The top priority Mars findings/recommendations in the report are:

“1. Continue the Mars Sample Return mission. This was a top priority in the previous decadal survey, and the present survey emphasizes the essential importance of getting samples from Mars back to Earth for robust analyses. This is really the only way we’re going to learn about the deep history of Mars — specifically, how long ago was it capable of supporting life, and how long did those conditions last?

“2. Develop a dedicated life-detection mission (Mars Life Explorer, or MLE). There is now an urgency to figure out, once and for all, if organisms are currently living on Mars — and we must know the answer before the first astronaut sets foot on the Red Planet. It's clear that simply adding on a life-detection instrument here and there to other missions isn't going to answer the ‘life’ question — what's needed is a mission dedicated to life detection.”

Q: Why is Mars an intriguing planet to study and explore?

Gregg: “NASA is interested in discovering if life currently exists, or has existed, anywhere other than Earth. Mars has shown that it has hosted ‘habitable environments’ (settings on Mars that contained water for sufficiently long times at the appropriate pH and temperatures) in the past. We’d like to know once and for all whether Mars has ever (or may still) host life. Furthermore, there is a desire to send people to Mars. Its current environment makes it a much more hospitable place for people to visit than other bodies in the solar system.”

Q: How did you become interested in Mars?

Gregg: “I became fascinated by Mars while I was a freshman in college. I was taking a class called ‘Mars, Moon and Earth,’ and it was a semester of comparing and contrasting the geological systems of those planetary bodies (and other planets, too). One night in October, I was doing the assigned reading, which was about the early Viking lander missions to Mars. I was looking at a full-color image of the Mars surface, taken from Viking 2 lander and giving a very human perspective of the surface — I felt like I was standing there myself. Then I looked out my window, and there, hovering in the night sky, I could see the red dot of Mars. As my eyes flashed back and forth between the tiny, shining Mars in the sky and the photograph of the amazingly Earth-like Mars surface, I was enthralled.”

Q: Planetary defense is listed among the topics that the decadal survey addresses. What is that?

Gregg: “Planetary defense encompasses the goal of mitigating the effects of asteroid and meteorite impacts on Earth. Even small meteorites can wreak havoc. In 2013, for example, a 20-meter-diameter asteroid broke up on its way through Earth’s atmosphere — and so didn’t leave an impact crater — but shattered windows in Chelyabinsk, Russia, and reportedly injured over 1,000 people. We need to do a better job of preventing events like this.”

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Gregg: “It’s been an honor to work on this with the brilliant minds on the panel!”

Media Contact Information

Charlotte Hsu is a former staff writer in University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, email ub-news@buffalo.edu or visit our list of current university media contacts.