Coming Back to Earth with Planetary Scientist Tanya of Mars
This is the third installment in our Stellar Minds series, where we profile Planet’s extraordinary employees and their accomplishments. Keep checking our blog for upcoming features on some of the most remarkable people in aerospace today.
I can remember exactly what first got me interested in space as a kid, and it’s probably not anything that would first come to mind for anyone: The movie Big Bird in Japan. In this film, Sesame Street’s Big Bird ventures to the Land of the Rising Sun and unknowingly meets Kaguya-hime, the mythological Japanese princess of the Moon. After seeing it at the age of five, I went out every clear night to stare at the Moon. Around this same time there were some pretty exciting things happening in space to get a kid excited. Voyager 2 flew past Neptune, the first spacecraft to ever visit the giant blue planet. The Hubble Space Telescope launched and sent back unprecedented awe-inspiring images of the cosmos. I distinctly remember seeing the Pillars of Creation make their debut on the cover of Sky and Telescope magazine and being unable to tear my attention away from every swirl and color contained in their majesty.
But the entire course of my life changed on July 4, 1997, when NASA landed Pathfinder on Mars. Hitching a ride with this robotic lander was a tiny rover called Sojourner. When I saw the first pictures of that adorable rover driving around on the surface of Mars, I was hooked. Getting the chance to work on Mars missions for NASA became my new life goal.
Ten years and a couple of college degrees later, I was doing just that. My job was working in mission operations for a couple of cameras aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. As a geologist, my role was to pick what one of the cameras took photos of each week and then analyze those images to see what secrets of the martian past they might reveal. In particular, I tended to look for things changing on Mars today—new impact craters, fresh landslides, storms and more. Far from being a dead red rock floating in space, Mars is actually an active planet! There was something truly amazing about watching the surface of another world change from 200 million miles away.
A few years later, I became the Director of Research for Arizona State University’s Space Technology and Science Initiative. It was through this role that I found out about Planet. I co-taught a class called “Commercial Opportunities in Space,” where we introduced students to the vibrant commercial space sector. One of Planet’s engineers came to speak to our class and described the company mission: imaging the Earth every day to make change visible, accessible and actionable. This was a company looking at near-daily changes on our planet at the same scale at which I had monitored Mars for years. It also just looked like a downright fun place to work, born from NASA engineers strapping a cell phone to a sounding rocket and launching it into space from the Black Rock Desert—the famous home of the Burning Man festival.
In 2017 I was selected to become one of Planet’s “Science Ambassadors” to use PlanetScope data in my research analyzing seasonal landslides in a place called Haughton Crater. Located in the Canadian High Arctic, this crater was previously part of my PhD work because the crater and its gullies—small channels in which landslides occur on slopes—are a good analogue for similar features we see on Mars. This gave me the chance to network with Planeteers and learn more about the company and how they operated. My contract at ASU was temporary, and my plan had been to move back to Canada afterwards and maintain my status as a Mars scientist. In the Mars community, I was affectionately known as the “gully girl” for having mapped out the global extent of martian gullies across over 70,000 images for my PhD. Something about Planet’s mission to document change on Earth though, especially in light of climate change, called to me. My new goal was to find a way to prove to an Earth observing company that a Professional Martian would be useful to them.
Luckily, I had two things working in my favor: (1) geology on Earth and Mars is really similar and (2) operating cameras on satellites imaging Mars is also really similar to operating cameras imaging the Earth.
Planet brought me on board in the summer of 2019 as the manager of Science Programs for the federal government side of the company, with the main job of interfacing with NASA. As a scientist who used Planet data in my own research and who worked with NASA as a subcontractor for years, I am fluent in the lingo on both sides. My role is to help researchers figure out what image products of ours can best aid in their work, how to integrate our imagery into their workflows with public datasets like Landsat and Sentinel-2, and to have fun nerding out over the cool work they’re doing with the imagery. (Ok, that last part might not actually be in my job description, but I do it anyway!)
Despite coming back to Earth, I haven’t lost my love for Mars. Outside of Planet I spend my time continuing Mars research. What I’m probably most known for, separate from Planet and being the Martian “gully girl,” is being a science communicator under the moniker “Tanya of Mars.” This happened almost as an accident…I picked this as a Twitter handle a decade ago as an homage to the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs sci-fi novel John Carter of Mars without totally understanding why Twitter was useful as a platform. Social media in general just wasn’t my thing. But then I started micro-blogging on Twitter at conferences and sending out bite-sized pieces of planetary science information to share with the world. Those pieces seemed to resonate with people and encourage them to ask questions, some of whom had never had the chance to talk to an actual scientist before. Then I branched out into talking about Mars news in general, and what it’s like to study the Red Planet. Eventually I expanded into a more personal realm, discussing the struggles of being both a woman and a person with a disability—a rare degenerative disease called ankylosing spondylitis—in STEM. This condition sucks to put it mildly, and has no cure, so it has had a huge impact on my life and my science.
Through all of this I discovered that I had the ability to enthusiastically communicate with a broad audience about space, as well as to help women and people with disabilities realize that space was for them and they could be a part of it. I also realized that I could make a bigger impact on the future of STEM with that than through my research. As interesting as martian gullies are to me, I had no illusions that studying them would change the world. But getting the chance to inspire people to be curious, to ask questions and see that science is more than white men in lab coats—now there’s something that could change the future.