Rock Star Fior years, planetary geologist Jim Garvin has loved and studied Mars from afar. His work has made him the most sought-after space scientist since Sagan.

December 09, 1997|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN STAFF

GREENBELT -- When Jim Garvin was a senior at Brown University in 1978, the Viking 2 lander was still snapping pictures of the rock-stubbled Martian surface. Planetary scientists were electrified, and anxious to get there to see for themselves. But just reaching Mars with life-support equipment would be hard. ,, Getting back, impossible.

So, some suggested, why not assemble a band of kamikaze geologists and send them there on a one-way ticket? Garvin, a 20-year-old who had taken one of the first courses ever offered in Martian geology, seized on the idea. He wrote to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and begged to be sent on this voyage of no return.

"I'm sure the folks at NASA that got my letter thought, 'Uh, OK, this is one for the looney bin,' " he says. "They sent me a polite letter saying thank you for your letter."

He never got to Mars, of course. But this accidental Earthling, now a senior scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, has spent the past 20 years studying the red planet and its near-neighbors in the inner solar system. And James B. Garvin has emerged as an authority on global-scale catastrophes, both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial: specifically, the meteorite impacts and volcanic eruptions that gouge huge holes in a planet's surface.

To study these planet-shaking events, he has pioneered the use of devices called laser altimeters, which use volleys of laser beams to map the topography of a piece of terrain from the sky.

This week, at the American Geophysical Society meeting in San Francisco, Garvin and his team will present some of the first discoveries of the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter, or MOLA, which is currently in a long, looping orbit around Mars aboard a spacecraft called the Mars Global Surveyor.

In the past decade, his energy and evangelical zeal have made him one of the solar system's best-known rockhounds.

"With Carl Sagan gone, Jim Garvin is as good a speaker as we have in astronomy," says Dr. Stephen P. Maran, spokesman for the American Astronomical Society and a Goddard senior scientist. "He's a terrific scientist as well, with enormous enthusiasm."

Now nearly 20 years older and presumably wiser, Garvin swivels in a chair in his office and considers the question: What if, back in 1978, NASA had said yes?

"From the perspective of a 40-year-old with a family and kids, it looks rather immature and stupid," he says, matter-of-factly. But at the time, he adds, "I would have done it, had they challenged me."

Since writing that letter, Garvin's career has taken him from the Zhamanshin crater in Kazakhstan to the Azores off Portugal, from the Vatnajokull glacier in Iceland to Mars Hill in Death Valley, all in search of unearthly landscapes and the forces that ,, shape them.

But his thoughts are never far from the red planet.

"Mars ... always operates at the extremes, which is why it has always tantalized human beings, I think, personally," he says. "What you have on Mars is the biggest mountains, volcanic, that we can imagine! They're 18 miles high. That's two times higher than the biggest mountains on Earth! They have canyons that are five to eight miles deep. Pretty big. Our Grand Canyon, for scale, is picayune," a mile deep.

Measuring up

The ultimate goal of Garvin's research is to understand how not just Mars, but Earth and the other innermost planets formed -- knowledge that could help us understand under what conditions life appears.

Using MOLA, Garvin and his team have recently surveyed the shape of more than 160 craters -- information that can tell them a lot about the underlying crustal material.

They've plumbed Mars' Valles Marineris, a 3,000-mile-long system of gorges that, they've discovered, are up to 8 miles deep.

They've made the first direct measurements of Olympus Mons, and discovered that it is about 17 miles high -- dwarfing Mauna Kea, which rises 5.6 miles from the floor of the Pacific Ocean.

Most tantalizingly, he and his team have precisely measured the height of Mars' northern polar ice cap.

Some scientists have speculated that the escarpment consists of a thin veneer of ice, perhaps a few inches thick, over a jumble of frozen carbon dioxide and rock. Garvin's laser shows that the escarpment soars 2,300 feet from the planet's rocky surface. More important, its shape seems consistent with that of a block of solid ice.

If so, then the Martian pole contains a vast amount of water, perhaps the frozen remnants of ancient seas. And that, of course, suggests conditions on the Martian surface that once may have been friendly to the evolution of life.

Is Garvin excited?

"I'm absolutely, thoroughly delighted with what has happened -- we're just all ecstatic -- there's not any other word for it," says Garvin, who rocks restlessly in his chair, like a school kid eager for recess.

To him, firing laser beams at planets, figuring out how volcanoes erupt and measuring giant holes is recess.

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