Timothy Glotch
RIS4E principal investigator and team leader
Stony Brook University

The Rise of RIS4E: Getting a Grasp on the Solar System

By Kristen O’Neill

Growing up in Massachusetts, Tim Glotch would brave the cold New England nights to catch a glimpse of Jupiter with his dad. His fascination with space never waned, and when he got to college, he majored in physics and astronomy, figuring that was the way to major in space. But as it turned out, it was the wrong part of space.

“I was looking at things like galaxies and quasars,” he said. “And it didn’t really fuel my engine.” Though the research was interesting, the stuff billions of light years away just didn’t excite him the way he thought it would.

Then, the summer before his junior year, in 1997, NASA’s Pathfinder reached Mars with a robotic rover, the first landing on Mars since the Viking missions 20 years earlier. For Glotch, it was the spark that confirmed that what he really wanted to do was look at planets. It seemed much more tangible than galaxies and quasars. After all, you could send a robot to Mars.

“So, I want to do Mars, I want to do planets, better learn something about rocks,” Glotch said.
He wound up learning a lot about rocks. He went to graduate school at Arizona State University, where he earned his Ph.D in geological sciences, following his passion for Mars with his research there. In 2007, after a post-doc at Cal Tech, he moved across the country with his wife, fellow geologist Deanne Rogers, to Stony Brook University’s geosciences department.

In 2013, NASA launched the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI), after an open call for proposals for research about space to be done from the surface of Earth. Glotch put together a $5.5 million proposal he called Remote, In Situ, and Synchrotron Studies for Science and Exploration–RIS4E, with the “4” denoting S to the fourth power (though it could also apply to the project’s four themes).

“My motivation was to try something I hadn’t tried before,” Glotch said. “I spend a lot of time writing [NASA research and analysis] grants and part of it, maybe the competitive part of me, wanted to see if I was up to the challenge. But really what it came down to is that I looked around at the folks at Stony Brook and all the talent at Brookhaven [National Lab] and my colleagues at NASA Goddard, and this was an opportunity for me to bring them all together under one big umbrella that turned into RISE.”

It helped that Glotch had served on several NASA grant-review panels himself so he was well-versed in what makes for successful proposals. RIS4E was chosen as one of SSERVI’s nine teams from across the country.

Tim Glotch, the space-gazing kid from Massachusetts, was a principal investigator for a major NASA research project.

“We got everything we asked for,” Glotch said. “We’re doing everything we said we were going to do, and getting funded for it, which is fantastic.”

From the start, Glotch conceived RIS4E as a broad study, comprising various aspects of the geology of space. So when he started to pull in people for the project, a lot of Arizona State graduates found their way into the mix. Nearly a quarter of the RIS4E members have some connection to ASU.

“Whenever you’re doing a big project like this, the most important thing is to work with people that you know and that you trust and that you like because if you get funding, you’re going to spend five years working with them,” Glotch said.

Glotch, Deanne Rogers, and NASA research scientist Jacob Bleacher entered the Arizona State graduate geology program at the same time, and from 2010 to 2014 they collaborated together on field work on a volcanic lava flow not far from what became the RIS4E team’s Theme 2 field site.

“This field part of RIS4E was a natural outgrowth of that original work Jake and I and Deanne did,” Glotch said. “We knew we wanted to do this together.” The rest of the team came together in a much more patchwork fashion: “It started with me kind of thinking of five or six people that I wanted to be the core of the team and be the leaders of each theme.”

Through various connections, more Arizona State graduates found themselves on the RIS4E team. “[ASU] has a long reputation going back to the ’60s and ’70s as being a great place for planetary geology research,” Glotch said. Much of it is the legacy of Ron Greeley, a founding father of planetary volcanology who worked on the Apollo moon missions.

Glotch and Rogers’ advisor, Phil Christensen, also worked on NASA missions. He was the principal investigator for the thermal emission spectrometer currently in orbit around Mars and is working on getting an infrared spectrometer to an asteroid in 2018, Glotch said.

Glotch is now part of Stony Brook’s emerging planetary science program. This spring Stony Brook announced a $1.5 million renovation of its Earth and Space Sciences building to create the Center for Planetary Exploration, or CPEX, within the geosciences department. The center will be a 6,500-square-foot facility with labs, offices and conference rooms.

“We’re getting there,” Glotch said of Stony Brook’s standing in the planetary sciences field. “I think we’re up and coming.”

Glotch’s work with RIS4E and CPEX is an extension of the love of space he’s had since he was a kid growing up in Massachusetts, and to him the connection between the rocks he analyzes in the lab and the moons, asteroids, and planets of space is a no-brainer.

“They’re the building blocks of planets,” he said. “And every rock has a story to tell.”

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