Patrick Whelley
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Guardian of the LIDAR

By Ali Sundermier

They called him Hodor. During the RIS4E expedition across the lava desert of Kilauea, Patrick Whelley carried a 50-pound instrument on his back like the massive “Game of Thrones” character carried Bran Stark, a teenage boy who lost the use of his legs. The instrument was the LIDAR, a giant laser that Whelley and his field partner, Brent Garry, used to gather topographical information about the terrain. On this trip, Whelley was guardian of the LIDAR, braving rain and blistering heat to carry it safely to its destination.

Whelley grew up surrounded by cattle farms and sugar shacks in Moultenborough, N.H., and he was always interested in science. His introduction to geology was a rock project he did in junior high, but it wasn’t until high school, when he participated in a summer program that took him to Arizona State University to work with real planetary scientists in their laboratories, that he realized that rocks—and space—would be his life’s path. He recalls a particular moment that summer that may have sealed the deal: Putting a model of the Mars Pathfinder lander in a wind tunnel to examine how it affected the wind patterns on the planet’s surface.

“That was just an amazing thing to do,” Whelley said. “It was an excellent introduction into geology and planetary science.”

Whelley was so inspired by the program that he applied to to Arizona State and went on to earn both his bachelors and masters in geological sciences there. He continued on to the University at Buffalo, where he completed his doctorate in geology in 2012.

“Rocks tell a story,” Whelley said, “whether it’s a rock on your jewelry or something in the gravel. And if you know how to interrogate it or ask it the right questions a rock can tell you the history of the earth.”

Whelley focuses his studies on volcanoes. For his Ph.D., he spent some time on Lascar, a remote volcano in Chile whose high elevations and lack of oxygen made it hard to think clearly in the field. Since then, his studies have taken him to volcanoes around the world.

“I like volcanoes because they change a lot,” Whelley said. “They’re really dynamic and unpredictable “That unpredictability is really fascinating. You have to take advantage of whatever the volcano throws at you.”

Whelley’s current work for NASA involves studying volcanic and wind-generated, or aeolian, processes using a combination of remote sensing and in-situ observations. Although Whelley came on this mission on a different grant from the rest of the RIS4E scientists, his goals of characterizing lava flows and volcanic deposits with topography overlapped with the interests of the project.

“We want to figure out the best ways to explore other planets and their volcanoes: how this volcano works, how lava flows work and how we can detect that from different types of data,” Whelley said. “I’m interested in telling the difference between different types of lava from remote sensing data.”

What he likes most about being a scientist, Whelley said, is the flexibility and the latitude to be creative and ask and explore interesting questions. Scientists who can make a good case for the questions they’re asking, he said, can do just about anything.

Although many young NASA planetary scientists aspire to the astronaut corps, Whelley prefers to make his contribution toward the next frontier from here on Earth. As fascinating as human space exploration is, he says the life of an astronaut wouldn’t provide enough stability for him. Asked what he would bring with him were he to be forced onto a spaceship, Whelley considered the question for a moment and came up with a field geologist’s answer.

“I think I’d bring a nice comfy pair of socks.”

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