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How Do I Become a Planetary Geologist?

Planetary geologists should have backgrounds in multiple fields including astronomy and astrophysics.
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  • Written By: Ray Hawk
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 22 July 2014
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To become a planetary geologist, the first requirement is that to obtain a college education in the geosciences field that covers the geology of the Earth. Planetary geologist careers are cross-disciplinary careers that require an education in both geoscience and fields of astronomical research like astronomy and astrophysics. This also includes advanced education in physics and math as well as chemistry, since planetary geology deals exclusively with the physical makeup of celestial bodies as well as their orbital and rotational dynamics. Some space research programs such as that of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the US also offer extended education programs for teachers, geologists, astrophysicists, or undergraduate students who plan to become a planetary geologist.

A well-rounded approach that could be taken to become a planetary geologist would include obtaining an undergraduate degree in geology and a more advanced degree such as a master's degree in astrophysics. This would provide a fundamental level of understanding of how geological processes take place on Earth, as well as a sophisticated understanding of the physical properties of celestial bodies. Since planetary science careers are interdisciplinary however, there are many career paths in the geological and astronomical sciences to becoming a planetary geologist.

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Getting started on the road to meeting planetary geologist requirements could also involve taking special summer sessions in planetary geology that are offered by undergraduate universities in the US. A 2006 listed program at the Idaho State University in the US focuses on planetary geology for kindergarten to 12th grade teachers, as well as for students who are majoring in physical science and want to become a planetary geologist. It involves studying a range of celestial bodies from planets and moons to asteroids and comets. The geology aspects of such programs include researching volcanic activity and plate tectonics on planets such as Mars and Venus. To take such a course, a student has to have completed a basic course in geology or study equivalent to it, and has to be on a path to obtaining a degree in planetary science or natural science.

Programs also exist to become a planetary geologist that pair state universities with NASA in the US. One example is The Planetary Geology and Geophysics Undergraduate Research Program in the state of Oregon, running as of 2011, that puts undergraduate students into a mentoring relationship with NASA researchers around the country. Students in US-based geoscience or astronomy programs that have not yet started their graduate degree work are eligible to apply, as well as foreign students from outside of the US. The program is an eight-week course that runs over the summer, and is meant to supplement an education in the planetary and geophysical sciences.

Graduate programs in planetary geology are often referred to as astrogeology or exogeology, and these terms should be used when searching for planetary geologist training, as it is a narrow field that is not offered by most university systems. Several more widely taught areas of basic geological science can often be obtained through local universities as preparatory work, including study in mineralogy, petrology, and hydrogeology. Modern-day planetary geologist requirements also focus on some education in computer science, as much of the research involves computer modeling and digital mapping of celestial surfaces.

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