Unique Course Brings Red Planet to Life at CSULB

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Professor Chrys Rodrique

Cal State Long Beach Geography Professor Chrys Rodrigue teaches a unique course about the geography of Mars.

Cal State Long Beach (CSULB) Professor Chrys Rodrigue knows that Nov. 28 marks even more than Thanksgiving and Hanukkah this year. She welcomes the return of “Red Planet Day” in commemoration of the launch of the first successful mission to Mars, the Spacecraft Mariner 4, on Nov. 28, 1964.

Mariner 4 was a fly-by mission that came within 6,118 miles of Mars on July 14, 1965.

The commemorative day for the Red Planet holds a special place in the heart of this geography professor. Since 2007, Rodrigue has taught Geology 441, a four-unit course titled “The Geography of Mars,” the first such course offered anywhere. 

The class covers the planet’s exploration, reviews remote sensing data and then provides a physical regionalization of the Martian surface. “The course also reviews the history of Mars exploration as a screen for human fantasy,” she said.

“I had the privilege of attending Dr. Rodrigue’s ‘Geography of Mars’ class two years ago at CSULB,” said Mary Caress who earned a certificate in geographic information systems (GIS) from CSULB in 2011. “I loved it. We came to know the geography of Mars – from the towering volcano Olympus Mons (dwarfing the largest Earth volcano) to the canyons of Valles Marineris (which makes the Grand Canyon look like a gully) to the plains and the craters that make up this incredibly fascinating planet. It felt like we were there, with the beautiful and plentiful images from Mars with which Dr. Rodrigue illustrated her lectures.

“In the lab exercises, she had us work with actual remote sensing images and geochemical data from Mars, transforming us all into Red Planet scientists,” Caress added. “Dr. Rodrigue’s obvious passion for the Red Planet translated into a fascinating, lively class. Her enthusiasm for Mars and science is infectious, and this class is exactly what is needed to inspire the next generation of scientists and space adventurers.”

The success of the Mars class comes from Rodrigue’s own commitment. “What I want to do is give students a sense of Mars as a place, not just as a pink dot in the sky,” she said.

Lab exercises teach landscape fundamentals. “I have my students work with digital elevation data so they can work out, segment by segment, if water could plausibly have flowed out from west to east through the huge Martian canyon of Valles Marineris,” Rodrigue explained, “or south to north through the many channels and craters of the Chryse Trough east of the gigantic Tharsis volcanic rise.

“Could these have functioned, even intermittently, as a drainage system conveying water to the Northern Lowlands, where it’s been argued that an ocean may once have stood?” she asked. “Students also review geochemical data from NASA’s Mars Rover Opportunity, using statistical software that allows them to create a coherent zonation of the landscape.”

John Fawcett, a master of science candidate in CSULB’s GIS program, said he understands his home planet a little better now that he’s looked at Mars.

“Studying Mars leads to an unavoidable comparison with the Earth,” Fawcett said. “Gravity, the atmosphere, the magnetic field (now dissipated), the length of day (the Martian Sol), the features that seem to indicate a flow of surface water at some time in the past, the behavior and composition of the poles.

“All of these just beg for comparison with not only Earth but other planets and moons in the solar system,” he continued. “This broad study of different features brings home the message of how lucky we are on planet Earth to have so many favorable features that have obviously supported the occurrence of and continuation of life (as we know it).”

Rodrigue came to Martian research in 2001 when NASA asked her advice on improving risk communication for the then-planned Mars Sample Return Lander (MSRL). During a 2002 sabbatical, she began to read about Mars.

“It was a little overwhelming at first, but I began to develop a solid understanding of Mars science,” she said. “By the time the MSRL succumbed to budget cuts. I had acquired all this information about Mars but I had no project left to apply it to. So I asked myself, ‘Why don’t I create a class before I forget it all?'” Thus, “The Geography of Mars” was launched.

Rodrigue, who earned a B.A. and M.A. in geography from Cal State Northridge and a Ph.D. in geography at Clark University, salutes Mariner 4, the first successful mission to Mars.

“A glance at the success rate of Martian research reveals great risk,” she pointed out. “There have been a few partial ‘successes’ that operated all of 20 seconds. Mariner 3 was launched three weeks before and failed. Mariner 4 was a success.”

Still, there is the question of why Mars seems to fascinate some people on Earth. Naturally, Rodrigue has an answer she readily shares.

“That rock in the sky is the only other planet in our solar system where humans have a smidge of a chance of survival,” she noted. “More than half the missions to Mars have failed. It’s hugely risky. It has been described as the Bermuda Triangle of the solar system. That is why there will be a constant fascination with Mars.”

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