I LOVE the detective element in my work, says Aurora Fellowship researcher Matt Balme. “Studying Mars is a combination of spatial recognition, intuitive thinking, hard maths and science – and most exciting of all, one day we’re going to go there!"
The 34-year-old is researching how climate change on the Red Planet shapes its surface – and working both at the OU and as a NASA-funded research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, gives him the enormous benefit of a dual perspective.
Matt’s brief at the Open University is to study very young geological features, examining recent landforms in a climate which alters according to Mars’ ever-changing orbit. “The Earth’s obliquity (how tilted its rotation axis is, compared to its orbit) is a pretty constant 22 to 24 degrees", he explains, “ but Mars’ obliquity changes every 100,000 years – sometimes it’s less than 15 degrees and has almost no seasons, sometimes it’s 45 degrees and seasonal changes in climate are extreme".
Knowledge of this climate change and its effect on the landscape could be a crucial factor in the search for life on Mars, particularly where Matt and his colleagues find evidence of recent ice and water. “This helps us better identify places to send future rover vehicles that will search for life," he says.
And he hopes his work will have an impact not only on such discovery itself. He is currently among a team forming a Planetary Surfaces Group, a move to encourage more interdisciplinary, interdepartmental planetary geosciences research than ever before.
Away from work, his hobbies still focus on space. "I’m a keen sci-fi fan," he says. “But I’m also interested in political philosophy. I’ll often read two books at once – one sci-fi and the other philosophy!"
Matt has also recently set up home in Milton Keynes with his fiancée so DIY looms large at the moment and as a vegan, he is also a keen defender of animal rights.
He is also an enthusiastic sports fan. “I like cricket – I support Hampshire – and I also follow Southampton FC," he says. Speaking days after his beloved Saints narrowly avoided relegation to the third tier of English football, he admits: “The last few weeks have been a bit tense – but their survival at least means that’s one less thing for me to worry about!"
May 1974. Born in Hythe, Hampshire.
1979 to 1992. Idyllic childhood and adolescence spent biking, climbing trees, walking the dog, and (a bit later on) drinking peach wine and cider in the New Forest.
1992 “Gap year working as a research technician for a pesticides development company in Southampton. Working with stuff that can kill you teaches good lab practise! Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics inspires me to become a vegetarian.
1993 to 1997. Abandon the countryside for undergraduate degree in Physics with Space Science at University College London. Four years of hard work, great times and steadily increasing levels of debt!
1996. 3rd year lecture course Planetary Geology, taught by Professor John Guest, proves to be a turning point in my academic career. The geology of planets, as revealed by spacecraft images, catches my imagination like no other subject.
1997 to 2001. Remain at UCL for PhD “Small scale tectonism on Venus – an experimental and image based study, but move from the Physics and Astronomy to the Earth Sciences department. Travel to Tanzania, Kenya, Iceland and Italy for fieldwork.
2000. Hit my first (and last) century playing cricket in the Hackney Pubs league.
2001. Finish second in the Daily Telegraph’s Fantasy Cricket competition. Prize money pays off about two thirds of the credit card debt racked up by seven years of full-time education.
2001 to 2003. Move to Phoenix, Arizona, to work at Arizona State University. Highlights include working in the Mars wind tunnel at NASA Ames research centre, developing the Arizona State vortex generator apparatus, and chasing dust devils (small desert whirlwinds) in Nevada. Become a fan of Baseball; the Diamondbacks win the World Series!
2003 to 2004. Return to the UK and join the Stereo Camera Team of the Beagle 2 UK Mars Mission. Team assembles early on Christmas day to await the first response from Beagle 2. It never comes.
2004. Hit 30 and upgrade from Vegetarian to Vegan. Much easier to make big lifestyle changes when you have an arbitrary date to inspire you.
2005. Awarded NASA Mars Data Analysis Program Grant to study small ripple-like duneforms on Mars. Thus begins my annual pilgrimage to the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson (and my avoidance of the British winter).
2005. Spend six months in France working at Université de Paris Sud. Being a Vegan utterly confuses my colleagues. Later in year, start work at Open University.
2008 Awarded Aurora Fellowship. Become engaged to my long-term (long-suffering!) girlfriend Anne.