Where we’re going we won’t need roads: welcome NASA JPL Geospatial Information Scientist Fred Calef to RealScientists!

To our knowledge, Mars is the only planet in the universe which is solely inhabited by robots. The fact that Mars is apparently free of traffic lights, roadworks and fast-lane slowcoaches doesn’t mean travel on Mars is without its challenges. Sure, there are Google Maps for Mars, but there isn’t, as yet, sat-nav directions, old-school dead-tree street directories, or even, y’know, roads.

That’s the challenge which lies before our next curator, Fred Calef III of the legendary NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech. His official job title isĀ  Geospatial Information Scientist/Co-Localization Scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory. Unofficially, his job title at MSL is ‘Keeper Of The Maps’. He is Curiosity’s sat-nav.


After a BS in Anthropology and Earth Science at UMass in Boston, and a MS in Geological Sciences at Ohio University, Fred completed his PhD in Geology in 2010 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, on ‘Investigating the Retention of Bright and Dark Ejecta from Small Rayed Craters on Mars’. His research interests are in planetary geology, particularly surface p rocesses, meteoritics, impact craters, and the area of geographic information systems (GIS), which designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present spatial or geographical data. When he’s not doing that, and even when he is, Fred tweets at @cirquelar. We launched our usual set of questions at him and he had this to say in response:

Why and how did you end up in science?

My grandfather was a ‘renaissance man’ who introduced me to a number of scientific subjects via books he owned or via walks in the woods looking at nature. His curiosity and breadth of knowledge helped spur my own. Science classes were always my favorite too. I particularly remember an 8th grade science teacher (unfortunately, forgotten his name) who was particularly inspiring with his enthusiasm.

Why did you choose your current field, and what keeps you there?

I spent many a day exploring the granite quarry at the end of my street, as well as my grandfather being an active ‘rock hound’, with large rock specimens in our back yard from outings, lead me to geology. The fact that you can pick up any rock and read its history has always fascinated me. Maps, for me, have always been a way to escape to a new location and learn something new; to lay down new lines and color revealing a new world just doesn’t get any better! Planetary science is all about exploring new worlds, places we’ve never gone before, so being able to map that, to understand it from a scientific perspective, always keeps me engaged.


Tell us about your work!

I make maps for the Curiosity rover (aka Mars Science Laboratory) as my main job, locating all the rocks and outcrops we analyze with the variety of instruments onboard. In addition, I build geospatial datasets and maps to better understand the context of where the rover is and for science investigations. e.g. I helped delineate a potential lake level within Gale crater with the Project Scientist Dr. John Grotzinger. I also work on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Opportunity as a Payload Uplink Lead (PUL) where I program the navigational cameras (NAVCAM, HAZCAM) to take images after a drive to determine where we are and what rocks we have to analyze nearby. For the InSight mission, I’m developing mapping data and a web interface to help find a safe place to put the science instruments (a seismometer SEIS and heat probe HP3). I’m also assisting in landing site analysis for InSight and the Mars2020 rover. For pure science, I look at new small rayed craters on Mars and what they tell us about the current erosional/depositional environment as well as some ancillary subjects related to the exploration of Gale crater with MSL.

Why should the public care about your research/work?

Scientific space exploration is trying to answer questions the human species has been asking for a long time: “Why is there life on Earth?”, “Did life develop anywhere else?”, “What’s out there?” These are not esoteric questions! We’re not curing diseases or solving world hunger, but we are cultivating and nurturing our understanding of the Earth by looking at places not-Earth and trying to understand how one planet can become filled with life and others not-so-much. From a technical perspective, space exploration does create many technologies that trickle into everyday lives to improve them (e.g. cellular technology, low-energy electronics, computerized mapping systems, etc.).

Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations or hobbies?

The majority of my extracurricular obligations are with my family, especially my two young boys, both LEGO engineers in training; not much time left after that. I’ve been writing poetry, off and on, since highschool and also train in the Japanese martial art of Yoshinkan Aikido, which I recently earned my 1st degree black belt in.


How would you describe your ideal day off?

Getting outdoors in any way possible. I try to get down to the beach as often as possible (easily done in the LA area) or out to the local mountains for a refreshing hike. Basically, anything out in nature is ideal mentally and physically for me. Love going to see a film or especially theater, but difficult to find the time.

Please join us in welcoming Fred Calef to RealScientists!


James is a recovering scientist and escaped postdoc who works in research management at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He's now retired from active @RealScientists duty, after serving from the project's beginnings in 2013 through to mid 2015. When not managing research, surviving #PlanetParenthood or pretending not to be an expat Australian in the Deep South of NZ, he tweets @theotherdrsmith.

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