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Chris McKay

Title: Sr. Scientist
Read Chris Mckay‘s interview

Chris Mackey


Ph.D. in AstroGeophysics from the University of Colorado in 1982

Research Interests:

My research focuses on the evolution of the solar system and the origin of life. I’m also actively involved in planning for future Mars missions including human exploration. I have been involved with polar and desert research, traveling to the Antarctic Dry Valleys, the Atacama Desert, the Arctic, and the Namib Desert to conduct research in these Mars-like environments.

Select Publications:

  1. Select Publications: 

  2. Mellon, M.T., McKay, C.P. and Grant, J.A., 2022. Thermal conductivity of planetary regoliths: The effects of grain-size distribution. Icarus, p.115211.
  3. Xia, Z., Patchin, M., McKay, C.P. and Drndić, M., 2022. Deoxyribonucleic Acid Extraction from Mars Analog Soils and Their Characterization with Solid-State Nanopores. Astrobiology. 22(8), 992-1008.
  4. MacKenzie, S. et al. 2022. Science objectives for flagship-class mission concepts for life detection at Enceladus. Astrobiology, 22(6), 685–712.
  5. DiGiacomo, J., McKay C., Davila, A. 2022. ThermoBase: A database of the phylogeny and physiology of thermophilic and hyperthermophilic organisms. PLoS ONE 17(5): e0268253.
  6. Marinova, M.M., McKay, C.P., Heldmann, J.L., Goordial, J., Lacelle, D., Pollard, W.H. and Davila, A.F., 2022. Climate and energy balance of the surface and ground ice in University Valley, Antarctica. Antarctica Science, 34(2), 144–171.
  7. Williams, K.E., McKay, C.P., Toon, O.B. and Jennings, K.S., 2022. Mass balance of two perennial snowfields: Niwot Ridge, Colorado, and the Ulaan Taiga, Mongolia. Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research54(1), pp.41-61.
  8. Cowan, D., Ferrari, B. McKay C. 2022. Out of thin air? Astrobiology and atmospheric chemotrophy. Astrobiology, 22(2), 225–232.
  9. McKay, C.P., Swayze, G.A., Clark, R.N., and Kokaly, R.F. 2021. Spectroscopic detection of cryptoendolithic colonization in Antarctic sandstone and the search for life on Mars. Antarctic Science, 33(3), 265-272.
  10. Hallsworth et al. 2021. Water activity in Venus’ uninhabitable clouds and other planetary atmospheres. Nature Astronomy 5, 665-675.
  11. Zhang, L., Zeng, F., McKay, C.P., Navarro-Gonzalez, R.N., Sun, H.J. 2021. Optimizing chiral selectivity in practical life detection instruments.  Astrobiology, 21, 505-510.
  12. McKay, C.P. 2021. Preservation of static lifeless landscapes in the Antarctic Dry Valleys and the Atacama Desert and applications to the Moon and Mars. Ethics and the Environment  26, 105-120.
  13. Obryk, M.K., P. T. Doran, A. G. Fountain, M. Myers, C. P. McKay (2020) Climate from the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica, 1986 – 2017: surface air temperature trends and redefined summer season. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 125, e2019JD032180. doi 10.1029/2019JD032180
  14. McKay, C.P. (2020) What is life – and when do we search for it on other worlds. Astrobiology, 20, 163-166.
  15. Kling, A.M., Haberle, R.M., McKay, C.P., Bristow, T.F., Rivera-Hernandez, F. (2020) Subsistence of ice-covered lakes during the Hesperian at Gale crater, Mars. Icarus. 338: 113495.
  16. Trainer, M.G. et al. (2019) Seasonal variations in atmospheric composition as measured in Gale Crater, Mars. Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, 124, 3000-3024.
  17. McKay, C.P., Balaban, E., Abrahams, S., and Lewis, N. (2019) Dry permafrost over ice-cemented ground at Elephant Head, Ellsworth Land, Antarctica. Antarctic Science 31(5), 263–270.
  18. Viola, D., McKay, C.P., and Navarro-González, R. (2019) A method for monitoring glacial loss and temperature variation using satellite observations: Case study of Pico de Orizaba and Iztaccíhuatl (Mexico). Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research 51:1, 379-396.
  19. Faucher, B., Lacelle, D., Fisher, D.A., Andersen, D.T., McKay, C.P. (2019). Energy and water mass balance of Lake Untersee and its perennial ice cover, East Antarctica. Antarctic Science 31(5), 271-285.
  20. McKay, C.P. 2019. Prerequisites to human activity on Mars: scientific and ethical aspects. Theology and Science 17(3), 317-323.
  21. Lorenz, R.D., Imanaka, H., McKay, C.P., Makel, D., Hunter, G.P., Trainer, M.G., Osiander, R., Mastandrea, A., Barnes, J.W. and Turtle, E.P., 2019. Hydrogen sensing in Titan’s atmosphere: Motivations and techniques. Planetary and Space Science. 174, 1-7.
  22. Manning, C.V., Bierson, C., Putzig, N.E., McKay, C.P. (2019) The formation and stability of buried polar CO2 deposits on Mars. Icarus 317, 509–517.
  23. Kawai, J., Kebukawa, Y., McKay, C.P. and Kobayashi, K., 2019. Nucleic acid bases in Titan tholins and possible genetic systems in the Titan liquidosphere. Life Sciences in Space Research. 20, 20-29.
  24. Bevington, J., McKay, C.P., Davila, A., Hawes, I., Tanabe, Y., Andersen, D.T. (2018) The thermal structure of the anoxic trough in Lake Untersee Antarctica. Antarctic Science, online, 30(6), 333-344.
  25. McKay, C.P. 2018. The search on Mars for a second genesis of life in the Solar System and the need for biologically reversible exploration. Biological Theory 13(2) 103–110.
  26. Schulze-Makuch, D. et al. (2018) Transitory microbial habitat in the hyperarid Atacama Desert. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences115(11), 2670-2675.
  27. Williams, K., Heldmann, J., McKay, C., & Mellon, M. (2018). The effects of snow and salt on ice table stability in University Valley, Antarctica. Antarctic Science 30, 67-78.
  28. McKay, C.P., Davila, A., Andersen, D. 2017. Antarctic environments as models of planetary habitats: University Valley as a model for modern Mars and Lake Untersee as a model for Enceladus and ancient Mars. The Polar Journal 7(2), 303-318.
  29. Faucher, B., Lacelle, D., Davila, A., Pollard, W., Fisher, D., & McKay, C. P. (2017). Physicochemical and biological controls on carbon and nitrogen in permafrost from an ultraxerous environment, McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. J. Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, 122, 2593–2604.
  30. Lapalme, C.M., Lacelle, D., Pollard, W., Fortier, D., Davila, A., McKay, C.P. 2017. Cryostratigraphy and the sublimation unconformity in permafrost from an ultraxerous environment, University Valley, McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes, 28(4), 649–662.
  31. Obryk, MK, Doran, PT, Waddington, ED, McKay, CP 2017. The influence of föhn winds on Glacial Lake Washburn and palaeotemperatures in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica, during the Last Glacial Maximum. Antarctic Science, 29 (5), 457-467.
  32. Steel, E.L., Davila, A., McKay, C.P. (2017) Abiotic and biotic formation of amino acids in the Enceladus ocean. Astrobiology, 17, 862-875.
  33. Lacap-Bugler, D.C., Lee, K.C., Archer, S., Gillman, L.N., Lau, M.C., Leuzinger, S., Lee, C.K., Maki, T., McKay, C.P., Perrott, J.K. and de los Ríos-Murillo, A., 2017. Global diversity of desert hypolithic cyanobacteria. Frontiers in Microbiology8, article 867.
  34. Stern, J. C., B. Sutter, W.A. Jackson, R. Navarro-González, C.P. McKay, D.W. Ming, P.D. Archer, and P.R. Mahaffy (2017), The nitrate/(per) chlorate relationship on Mars, Geophys. Res. Lett., 44, doi:10.1002/ 2016GL072199.
  35. Ertem, G., Ertem, M.C., McKay, C.P. and Hazen, R.M., 2017. Shielding biomolecules from effects of radiation by Mars analogue minerals and soils. International Journal of Astrobiology, 16(3), 280-285.
  36. Goordial, J., Davila, A., Greer, C. W., Cannam, R., DiRuggiero, J., McKay, C. P. and Whyte, L. G. (2017) Comparative activity and functional ecology of permafrost soils and lithic niches in a hyper-arid polar desert. Environ Microbiol. 19, 443–458.
  37. Obryk, M.K., Doran, P.T., Hicks, J.A., McKay, C.P., Priscu, J.C. (2016) Modeling the thickness of perennial ice covers on stratified lakes of the Taylor Valley, Antarctica. Journal of Glaciology. 62(235), 825–834.
  38. Tang, S., B. Chen, C.P. McKay, R. Navarro-González, and A.X. Wang (2016) Detection of trace organics in Martian soil analogs using fluorescence-free surface enhanced 1064-nm Raman Spectroscopy.  Optics Express 24 (19) 22104-22109.
  39. Checlair, J., McKay, C.P., Imanaka, H. (2016) Titan-like exoplanets: Variations in geometric albedo and effective transit height with haze production rate. Planet. Space Sci. 129, 1–12.
  40. Goordial, J, Davila, AF, Lacelle, D, Pollard, W, Marinova, M, Greer, C, Jocelyne DiRuggiero, J, McKay, CP, Whyte L. (2016) Nearing the cold-arid limits of microbial life in permafrost of an upper dry valley, Antarctica. The ISME Journal 10, 1613–1624
  41. McKay, C.P. (2016) Water sources for cyanobacteria below desert rocks in the Negev Desert determined by conductivity. Global Ecology and Conservation 6, 145–151.
  42. McKay, C.P., Rask, J., Detweiler, A.M., et al. (2016) An unusual inverted saline microbial mat community in an interdune sabkha in the Rub’ al Khali (the Empty Quarter), United Arab Emirates. PLoS ONE 11(3): e0150342. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0150342.
  43. McKay, C.P. (2016) Titan as the abode of life. Life, 6, 8; doi:10.3390/life6010008.
  44. Williams, K.E., McKay, C.P., Heldmann, J.L. (2015) Modeling the effects of Martian surface frost on ice table depth. Icarus 261, 58–65.
  45. McKay, C.P. (2015) Testing the Doran summer climate rules in Upper Wright Valley, Antarctica. Antarctic Science 27(4): 411 – 415.
  46. Andersen, D.T., McKay, C.P., and Lagun, V. (2015) Climate conditions at perennially ice-covered Lake Untersee, East Antarctica. J. Appl. Meteor. Climatol., 54, 1393–1412.
  47. Stern, J. C., Sutter, B., Freissinet, C., Navarro-González, R., McKay, C. P., Archer, P. D., … & Ehlmann, B. (2015). Evidence for indigenous nitrogen in sedimentary and aeolian deposits from the Curiosity rover investigations at Gale crater, Mars. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112 (14): 4245-4250.
  48. Williams, K.E. and McKay, C.P. (2015) Comparing flow-through and static ice cave models for Shoshone Ice Cave. International Journal of Speleology, 44 (2), 115-123.
  49. McKay, C.P. (2014) Requirements and limits for life in the context of exoplanets. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 111(35), 12628-12633.
  50. Davila, A. F., and  McKay, C. P. (2014). Chance and Necessity in Biochemistry: Implications for the Search for Extraterrestrial Biomarkers in Earth-like Environments. Astrobiology 14, 534–540.
  51. McKay, C. P., Anbar, A.D., Porco, C., & Tsou, P. (2014). Follow the Plume: The Habitability of Enceladus. Astrobiology 14, 352–355.
  52. McKay, C.P. et al. (2013) The Icebreaker Life Mission to Mars: A search for biomolecular evidence for life. Astrobiology 13, 334-353.
  53. McKay, C.P. (2012) Full solar spectrum measurements of absorption of light in a sample of the Beacon Sandstone containing the Antarctic cryptoendolithic microbial community. Antarctic Science, 24, 243-248.
  54. Navarro-González, R., Vargas, E., de la Rosa, J., Raga, A.C., and McKay, C.P. (2010) Reanalysis of the Viking results suggests perchlorate and organics at mid-latitudes on Mars. Journal of Geophysical Research, 115, E12010, doi:10.1029/2010JE003599.
  55. McKay, C.P. (2009) Biologically reversible exploration. Science 323, 718.
  56. McKay, C.P. (2009) Snow recurrence sets the depth of dry permafrost at high elevations in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Antarctic Science, 21, 89-94.
  57. McKay, C.P., C.C. Porco, T. Altheide, W.L. Davis, T.A. Kral (2008) The possible origin and persistence of life on Enceladus and detection of biomarkers in the plume. Astrobiology 8, 909-919.
  58. McKay, C.P., Smith, H.D. (2005) Possibilities for methanogenic life in liquid methane on the surface of Titan, Icarus, 178, 274-276.
  59. McKay, C.P., K.P. Hand, P.T. Doran, D.T. Andersen, and J.C. Priscu, Clathrate formation and the fate of noble and biologically useful gases in Lake Vostok, Antarctica. Geophys. Res. Lett., 30, 10.1029/2003GL017490, 2003.
  60. McKay, C.P., J.B. Pollack, R. Courtin, The greenhouse and antigreenhouse effects on Titan. Science, 253, 1118-1121, 1991.
  61. McKay, C.P., O.B. Toon, and J.F. Kasting, Making Mars habitable. Nature, 352, 489-496, 1991.
  62. Reynolds, R.T., C.P. McKay, J.F. Kasting, Europa, tidally heated oceans, and habitable zones around giant planets. Adv. Space Res., 7, 125-132, 1987.
  63. McKay, C.P., Exobiology and future Mars missions: The search for Mars’ earliest biosphere. Adv. Space Res., 6 (12), 269-285, 1986.
  64. McKay, C.P., G.D. Clow, R.A. Wharton, Jr. and S.W. Squyres, The thickness of ice on perennially frozen lakes. Nature, 313, 561-562, 1985.
  65. Pollack, J.B., O.B. Toon, T.P. Ackerman, C.P. McKay and R.P. Turco, Environmental effects of an impact generated dust cloud: Implications for the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinctions. Science, 219, 287-289, 1983.

Other Information

Awards and Other: 

1981 United States Antarctic Service Medal

1989 Urey Prize of the Division of Planetary Sciences

2004 NASA Exceptional Leadership Medal

2005 NASA Ames Honor Award – Mentor

2005 Int. Soc Study Origin Life Fellow

2006 Am. Geophys Union Fellow

2012 NASA Presidential Rank Award

2015 Nevada Medal

2019 National Space Grant Distinguished Service Award

2021 NASA Presidential Rank Award