Dr Joe Michalski

Big questions about the solar system and early life inspire our Mars expert to study the red planet and similar landscapes on Earth.

Joe Michalski

Early aspirations

Although he had an interest in astronomy, Dr Michalski didn’t set out to study the planets. Instead, he studied geology, and became fascinated by remote sensing, the ability to look at whole swaths of a planet’s surface at once.

Remote sensing has been used extensively to investigate Mars, where there’s a much better record of the early history of the solar system than on Earth. By studying the red planet, Dr Michalski hopes to answer questions about the planets and early life. ‘It’s attacking a major, wonderful mystery,’ he says. ‘I find it very satisfying.’

Super specimens

Studying Mars itself is a costly and rare opportunity though, so Dr Michalski also studies places and processes on Earth that appear similar to those on the red planet. For example, volcanoes in Iceland that erupt beneath glaciers produce landforms that look like some found on Mars, suggesting they formed in a similar way.

Dr Michalski’s ideal find would still be rocks from Mars that advance our ideas of how early life began. The next Mars missions are set to look specifically for organic material, and he hopes they find more complex compounds set in the rocks.

Bringing the past to life

Mars may have more ancient landscapes, but there are still places on Earth that can be probed for evidence of early planetary processes. A huge, ancient impact crater south of Johannesburg is now nearly completely eroded, but would originally have been 100-200 miles across.

That would have been a bad day on Earth,’ says Dr Michalski. Although only microbial life existed at the time, it still could have wreaked havoc.

The impact would have melted and deformed local rocks, but also brought up rocks from deep in the Earth’s crust. ‘It’s not that these specimens are so fantastic to look at,’ he says. ‘It's understanding the language they’re speaking.’