Lunar and Planetary Institute
3600 Bay Area Blvd.
Houston, Texas 77058
Office (281) 486-2110
Fax (281) 486-2162
I study the geophysical evolution of Mars, Venus, and the Moon. I also participate in educational outreach programs that communicate the results of NASA's solar system exploration program to teachers, students, and the general public.
Planetary Geophysics Research
My research activities are in the field of planetary geophysics. I develop computer simulations of mantle convection and heat transport in the interiors of planets, and I analyze observations of planets made by NASA spacecraft, particularly measurements of planetary gravity and topography and images of surface features. I also participate in lab studies of the physical properties of rocks, such as their densities and melting temperatures, which help to constrain the computer models. My goal is to combine models and observations in order to understand the current internal structure of Mars, Venus, the Moon, and Earth, as well as the processes that have controlled the evolution of these planets.
I am a member of the science team for NASA's GRAIL mission and am using gravity and topography observations of the Moon to better understand the structure and origin of its volcanos and impact basins. My lab studies of lunar rocks help to constrain the densities used in the gravity models. I also work on models of the formation of large impact basins and of the thermal evolution of the Moon.
Mantle convection is a type of viscous fluid flow inside a planet that transports heat from the interior to the surface. On Earth, mantle convection causes plate tectonics, volcanism, and earthquakes. Mantle convection is also important on Venus and Mars. This page describes mantle convection in greater detail with the help of color figures.
My models of mantle convection on Mars emphasize both the long term thermal evolution of Mars as well as magma genearation in present-day mantle plumes. These studies involve both computer models as well as laboratory studies of the melting of the martian mantle. My models of the gravity anomalies at large highland volcanos such as Syrtis Major, Hadriaca Pataera, and Apollinaris Patera reveal details of the magma chambers that fed these volcanos and provide our first clear look at the magmatic plumbing of Mars.
My studies of Venus focus on the relationship between mantle convection and surface features, such as large shield volcanos, rift zones, and coronae. The results of these studies demonstrate the dynamic nature of the interior of Venus.
Education and Public Outreach
In addition to my research work, I am also involved in a number of educational outreach programs at LPI. These include:
I have served as an instructor for many professional development workshops for middle school and high school science teachers. These workshops combine field trips to volcanic, tectonic, fluvial and impact structures in the western United States with classroom instruction on how the field sites relate to NASA's planetary geology exploration program. Recent examples include:
- Floods and Flows: Exploring Mars Geology on Earth (July 2008)
- Earth's Extremophiles: Implications for Life in the Solar System (July 2007)
- The Heat From Within: Earthly Insights into Planetary Volcanism (July 2006)
- Life at the Limits: Earth, Mars, and Beyond (July 2005)
- Floods and Flows: Exploring Mars Geology on Earth (July 2004)
- The Great Desert: Geology and Life on Mars and in the Southwest (July 2003)
This set of 3 lunar geology posters describes the Moon's geologic history, the use of spectroscopy to identify rock compositions from orbit, and NASA's on-going lunar exploration plans. Intended for use in 6th to 9th grade classrooms, each poster includes additional information and activities on the back side.
Mars Inside and Out is a collection of inquiry-based activities that explore the various processes that have shaped the surface of Mars, including volcanism, impact cratering, and flowing water. The activities are designed for use by upper elementary and middle school students in informal education settings such as libraries, but also include links to national science education standards to facilitate classroom use.
The Red Planet: A Survey of Mars, compiled by Walter S. Kiefer, Allan H. Treiman and Stephen M. Clifford (Lunar and Planetary Institute, Second Edition, 1997). This set of 40 images and captions provides an overview of our understanding of Mars. Other LPI Image Collections
Exploring the Solar System is a science enrichment course for developed at LPI for gifted and talented 5th and 6th grade students in Houston-area school districts. From 1994 to 2003, I served as one of the principal instructors and curriculum developers for this program.
Some Interesting Web Sites
- LPI's Lunar Science and Exploration website is a great starting point for locating information about the Moon.
- GRAIL and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter are making detailed studies of the Moon's geology and internal structure.
- The Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity are continuing their travels across the martian surface.
- MESSENGER is studying Mercury.
- The Cassini spacecraft is continuing its study of Titan, Enceladus, and the Saturn system.
- The Hubble Space Telescope continues to produce amazing images.
- Check out NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day and Planetary Science Research Discoveries.
- NASA Human Spaceflight: Find out what is happening on the International Space Station.
- Take a tour of the Solar System.
- You can even view the planets in 3 dimensions.
- What's up in tonight's sky? Find out with StarDate's sky almanac.
- I also maintain a longer listing of sites related to Planetary Science, Astronomy, Space Flight, and Science Education as part of the Lunar and Planetary Institute's website.
LPI Science Staff Page LPI Home Page
Walter S. Kiefer, firstname.lastname@example.org