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Paid to Have Fun

Noah Petro is a NASA planetary geologist who studies the surface of airless bodies in space, primarily focusing on the moon. In this video profile, Noah talks about how he was inspired to become a NASA researcher and what excites him most about his career in science.

Noah Petro still cannot believe that he is getting paid for having so much fun.

Petro's wide smile flashes as if he is unwrapping a long anticipated toy. "Every day at NASA is different. I get to study data from the surface of the moon that no one has ever seen before," exclaimed Petro.

Like most little boys, Petro was in awe of his father, Denis, an engineer with the Apollo program during the 1960's. He remembers seeing a test model of an Apollo astronaut backpack in a New York museum and his father whispering that he had worked on these backpacks, each containing a hidden piece of metal with the engineer's signatures etched into it. The astronauts left their backpacks on the moon - his father's name was actually on the surface of the moon!!

At 31, Petro lovingly credits both his parents for their encouragement to pursue his passions. As an engineer, his father was so intrigued by electrical impulses that he wanted to understand similar impulses in the brain – so he also became a neurologist. His mom, Jane, became an accomplished surgeon. His parents were perfect examples of how to live your dreams.

Photo of Noah Petro› View larger image
Photo of Noah Petro. Credit: NASA
Although his middle school guidance counselor encouraged him to take biology to become a doctor like his parents, Petro was not persuaded. He selected Earth science instead. He knew that he would find his own path, unaware then that it would be covered in rocks.

Petro found that he was drawn to science and geology due to the influence of some very talented science teachers at Fox Lane High School in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. They were experienced Earth science field researchers that had studied glaciers, volcanoes and other geologic features and they shared pictures and tales of adventures with the students. "They helped me realize that there was fun to be had exploring the world and all of its complicated systems," remarked Petro.

One experiment was simple but had a monumental impact on Petro. The instructor used a tank of water and posed one question, "Which will float – the rock or the wood?" Of course everyone guessed the wood, but it was the rock that floated! The rock was made of pumice, a type of volcanic rock that is formed when hot lava cools and it becomes light enough to float. The wood was from an Ironwood tree, which is extremely dense and therefore sinks in water.

Noah was intrigued - now he could see science as more than something in a book; he could feel the connection to the world around him and the Earth beneath his feet.

Photo of Noah Petro and Reese Fuller› View larger image
Noah Petro with Reese H. Fuller II, an Eleanor Roosevelt High School Senior in the spring of 2010. Fuller is now a student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and is considering a career in communications. Credit: NASA
His passion for geology led him to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine for his undergraduate studies. There Petro got his hands dirty during a summer internship through NASA's Planetary Geology and Geophysics Undergraduate Research Program (PGGURP) and worked with the United States Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Also at Bates Petro met Professor Gene Clough, Lecturer in Geology and Physics, who became his dear friend, advisor, role model and tour guide as he delved into planetary geology.

"I was substituting for another faculty member and decided to discuss the geology of the moon. Noah introduced himself as being an enthusiastic fan of space exploration with plans to major in geology. That day we began a conversation about the geology of the moon that never stopped," recalled Clough fondly.

In graduate school at Brown University, Providence, R.I., Petro found another great mentor and lasting friend in Carle Pieters, a Professor of Geological Sciences.

Because of these relationships, Petro takes his current role as a high school mentor seriously. He plans short-term projects so interns can experience the entire scientific process and feel a true sense of accomplishment when they leave NASA.

"I want to inspire other young people to follow their passions in life, whether it be in science or other fields", Petro stated. "Many thoughtful people inspired me and I feel truly blessed to carry the torch for others."

Petro has definitely found his niche in the Planetary Geodynamics Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Although Petro has only been there for a few years, he has developed a rather unique skill set focused on lunar technology.

Petro and colleagues have recently investigated a region in the widest and deepest crater on the moon using the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3), a NASA instrument on board India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar-orbiting spacecraft. Spectra from this instrument revealed that the formation of the Apollo Basin might have exposed a portion of the Moon's lower crust. The Apollo Basin, at 300 miles in diameter, is located in the northeastern corner of the enormous South Pole-Aitken Basin, which is 1550 miles in diameter.

The M3 measures broad wavelengths of light, displaying a different spectrum for each mineral. By comparing the measured spectra to the spectra of minerals in lunar samples or minerals on the Earth they can identify what the surface of the moon is made of.

Petro's exciting M3 research is funded by NASA's Discovery program, which conducts low cost, but highly focused planetary science investigations designed to better understand the solar system. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, located in Pasadena, Calif, manages the M3 mission.

One of the biggest surprises from M3 was the discovery of water on the Moon. Data from M3 and two other missions confirmed that water is found across much of the lunar surface, a finding that surprised the entire M3 team. That finding is just one in a long list of new discoveries that is showing us that the Moon is far from well understood.

"I discovered at an early age that all rocks are cool and have stories to tell. Now I can not believe that I am able to participate in NASA discoveries on other planets", stated Petro.

Although Petro is a very motivated researcher, he has just stepped into another important role as a first time father of little Liam. The tiny cries are having a big influence in his life right now as he sets off on the new frontier of Parenthood. He is looking forward to introducing Liam to the fun in science with the help of his wife Jennifer.

Cynthia O'Carroll
Goddard Space Flight Center