Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Research

Center for Earth and Planetary Studies

The Center for Earth and Planetary Studies (CEPS) is the scientific research unit within the National Air and Space Museum. Its scientists conduct an active research program in planetary and terrestrial geology and geophysics including work involving Mercury, Venus, the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and some satellites of the outer solar system.

There are many major projects going on in CEPS, some involving direct participation in current planetary missions. These four projects are just a sampling. A complete list of CEPS research is below.

  • The Mars Science Laboratory, nicknamed Curiosity, landed on Mars in August 2012. Curiosity is a car-size rover that was sent into space for a two-year mission to investigate whether Mars ever had an environment suitable for microbial life. John Grant, a CEPS geologist, was co-chair of the landing site selection committee, and is currently a long-term planner and geology science theme lead on the mission. Learn more.
  • CEPS geologist James Zimbelman published a paper with Stephen Scheidt, “Hesperian Age for Western Medusae Fossae Formation, Mars” published in the June 29 issue of the journal Science. Recent mapping determined that some of the Medusae Fossae Formation (MFF) materials are considerably older than previously thought, and that portions of the layered MFF materials may be related to layered deposits visible near the top of the large hill that the Curiosity rover will explore during the next several years.  Should Curiosity reach these regularly layered materials, its findings may then be related to a large deposit that has buried nearly one-third of the Martian equatorial region. Learn more.
  • The MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft has discovered assemblages of tectonic landforms unlike any previously found on Mercury or elsewhere in the solar system. The findings are reported in a paper led by CEPS chair and senior scientist Thomas Watters, published in the December issue of the journal Geology. Learn more.
  • Dr. Watters also led a team of scientists who reported that new high-resolution images obtained by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera provide evidence that the Moon’s crust is being slightly stretched, forming small valleys in some small areas. The young age of the valleys suggests the Moon has experienced relatively recent geologic activity. The team’s paper, “Recent Extensional Tectonics on the Moon Revealed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera,” appeared in the March issue of the journal Nature Geoscience. Learn more.

Complete list of CEPS staff and their research projects

Photo: This photo shows the margin Goethe basin on Mercury. A wrinkle-ridge ring marks the margin of the nearly completely buried basin.