MSSS Scientist, Mars Imagery, Andrew Britton @KalofXeno: A Day in the GeoLife Series

NAME:  Andrew Britton

CURRENT TITLE:  Assistant Staff Scientist at Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS), San Diego, California

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Planetary geology of Mars; remote sensing

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE:  9 years (image processing).

EDUCATION:  M.Sc. Space Science, University College London (2012); B.S. Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University (2010)

What’s your job like?

I am trained to take pictures of Mars using the Context Camera (CTX) onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). I also assist other MSSS science personnel in conducting ongoing scientific research with data from Mars spacecraft. This ongoing research includes seasonal campaigns and monitoring for new gully and impact crater formation/activity. Preparing data for archive in the Planetary Data System is another one of my roles.


Suite of instruments on flight deck of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (1/4 scale model). Image taken at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Open House by Andrew Britton October 2014.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day can include viewing logged images that have recently come back to Earth. Each image is viewed to check for quality, weather conditions, and surface changes. Part of our extended mission is to continue to monitor for new candidate impact sites and new gully activity. Other daily activities include targeting the Context Camera (CTX) on the spacecraft, updating Mars maps that serve as targeting aids, and writing Mars weather reports.


Space Camera! Full-Scale Model of MARDI (Mars Descent Imager). Image taken at San Diego Festival of Science and Engineering Expo Day by Andrew Britton March 2015.

What’s fun?

There are so many aspects of my job that are rewarding, including exploring Mars by targeting areas of the red planet that have not been imaged at 6 meter/pixel resolution, making beautiful maps, and sharing information with the public at public outreach events! On rare occasions, it is extremely fun to go out in the field to a Mars analog site like the Mohave desert or Barchan Dunes of Imperial Valley, California!

Barchan Dunes

Fresh grainflow mass wasting. Mars analog field trip to Barchan Dunes of Imperial Valley, California. Image taken by Andrew Britton November 2015.

What’s challenging?

Staying ahead on balancing primary duties with side projects that also need to be completed for the good of the company and the mission is challenging. Training someone while being trained yourself is also challenging. There is always data that can be collected, software to be upgraded, and workflows to be streamlined.

What’s your advice to students?

“Do what you love and the money will follow.” This is some of the best advice I received from my field geology professor as an undergraduate. Find what you love. Find something that you are willing to do more than just a hobby and become a professional at it. Learn how to fail by accepting that failure is a great way to learn. Know that no one was born a professional. Everyone was once a beginner. Learn how to code. I believe that one day knowing how to code will be almost equivalent to knowing how to read!

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