James J. Wray has been selected to receive the 2018 Outstanding Achievement in Early Career Research Award. An associate professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Wray is a planetary scientist who studies the surfaces of planets. He is motivated by the search for life in the universe or conditions that support life. His research focuses on Mars and icy moons in the outer solar system.
Wray’s research has advanced understanding of the surface properties of Mars. He and his students use spacecraft imaging, spectral, and in situ data to explore surface compositions, search for organic molecules from the soils and rocks, and map minerals across the Martian surface. His work has contributed substantially to our understanding of water on Mars throughout the planet’s geologic history.
Modern Mars is cold, dry, and inhospitable, despite the planet’s rich aqueous history. Yet in 2011, a team including Wray found dark streaks that form and propagate down the warmest Martian slopes in summer and fade in winter. The process, called recurring slope lineae (RSL), was reported in Science.
RSL could be driven by water flows or by dry granular flows. Wray and then-Ph.D. student Lujendra Ojha developed methods to analyze the process. Using NASA’s imaging spectrometer for Mars and infrared spectrometry, they detected water-bearing perchlorate localized to RSL during active periods.
The finding, reported in Nature Geoscience in 2015, caught the public’s imagination, because – at least on Earth – life as we know it requires water. Scientists widely discussed the confirmation of wet activity on modern Mars. The paper has been cited close to 200 times, indicating its wide impact.
“With record federal support and renewed public and commercial interest, it is a fantastic time to be a planetary scientist.”
However, water is not enough. Using instruments in Curiosity, the car-sized rover exploring a crater on Mars, Wray contributes to the next step in the search for life outside Earth: finding organic building blocks for biochemistry. Wray has focused his efforts on the search for nitrogen-bearing compounds in Martian rocks and soil and on establishing a global inventory of carbon, including the carbon locked in carbonate-bearing rocks.
The work on water on Mars has influenced research and planning at NASA. Wray has participated in a group that studied the implications of RSL on international policies to protect planets. He is involved in the design of the next robotic orbiter to characterize RSL throughout the Martian day.
Wray enables NASA’s “Journey to Mars” program, which aims to send humans to Mars by the 2030s. With the help of his expertise on spectral analysis of the Martian surface, a research team recently found massive subsurface ice sheets, which could be accessible to astronauts.
Beyond Mars, Wray is focused on the icy moons of giant planets, such as Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus. His work is informing high-level discussions of what instruments would be most useful for outer-solar-system missions.
“I am humbled to receive this honor from Georgia Tech, where so many others are also doing outstanding research that is changing the world every day,” Wray says. “I am grateful to my supportive colleagues at Georgia Tech and beyond, and most of all to the students I have been able to work with here, who have consistently exceeded my grandest expectations. With record federal support and renewed public and commercial interest, it is a fantastic time to be a planetary scientist.”