A visit to the U.S. Geological Survey's Astrogeology branch in Flagstaff

Posted by David Eicher
on Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Geological map of Mars, U.S. Geological Survey, Astrogeology branch // Credit: David J. Eicher
Winter in Flagstaff, Arizona, has been incredibly nice, with temperatures in the 60s (F). What a time it has been coming from frozen Milwaukee to be in a summerlike afternoon with the Sun shining brightly and the mountains and pine forest spreading over the landscape!

Following our visit to Lowell Observatory on Monday, Senior Editor Michael Bakich and I traveled to another erstwhile institution in Flagsaff — the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and its Astrogeology branch. There, we met an old friend, scientist Brent Archinal. I first met Brent when I was a teenager and went to the Apollo Rendezvous meeting in Dayton, Ohio. Brent was an enthusiastic amateur astronomer in Columbus, and the Columbus group took pity on this thin young kid who was producing a magazine about deep-sky observing. Michael went to school with Brent, so we have both known him for decades. What a pleasure it was to visit with an old friend and hear all about what the USGS does in planetary science!

You know, enormous amounts of money and energy get spent on planetary science missions, but the money is not always allocated properly to fully utilize the data once it is taken!

That’s where the USGS Astrogeology branch comes in. With virtually all bodies in the solar system, from producing the best maps of the Moon to interpreting and mapping other worlds like Io, Titan, Enceladus, Callisto, and many, many others, the best mapping and analysis of planetary data often happens within these walls. The building, moreover, is named for another hero the three of us all knew, Gene Shoemaker. He was something of a father figure and was tragically killed in a car crash in 1997. But his distinguished scientific career was filled with numerous achievements, and the building we toured now bears his name. Gene’s amazing wife, Carolyn, one of the greatest discoverers of comets in history, still occasionally comes in to spend time at her office.

The building is filled with artifacts. I’ll profile many of these in a future story. One of those that blew our minds sits in the lobby: the practice lunar rover vehicle built in 1970 to train the Apollo astronauts.

More to come on the USGS and data. Suffice to say it was an amazing day.

For all images from the trip, visit the Online Reader Gallery.

For related blogs, see:
   Visiting historic Lowell Observatory

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