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Dr. Aster Cowart

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Postdoctoral Research Scientist

Currently resides in MD
acowart [at]
Areas of Expertise
Targets: Earth, Mars
Disciplines/Techniques: Education/Public Outreach (EPO), Field Work, Geology, Geomorphology, Mapping, Remote sensing, Thermal Emission Spectroscopy
Missions: Mars Odyssey, MSL
Mission Roles: Mission science team, Science operations
Instruments: Cameras, Imaging spectrometers, Spectrometers

Research Interests

Aster Cowart (they/them) is a Postdoctoral Research Scientist working with Dr. Aileen Yingst. They are also an enthusiastic participant in Curiosity science operations, working with instrument specialists to collect the data used to interpret the history of Gale crater. Aster's work focuses on the study of rock microtextures using the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument on the Curiosity rover to understand the history of sediment deposition within Gale crater. To support this work, they are building Python-based tools to speed up the analysis of recently downlinked MAHLI imaging to incorporate geologic data and interpretation into the real-time rover operation decision loop. Working with Michelle Minitti (Malin Space Science Systems), Aster has also organized a campaign to use Curiosity's Mars Descent Camera (MARDI) to collect drive movies which will be used to study large changes in outcrop expression identified in orbital imaging of Gale crater.

In addition to rover work, Aster has used orbital remote sensing to study the Martian surface. Their Ph.D. work focused on Martian bedrock plains, large exposures of primarily rock (>225 km2) regions which differ from the generally dusty/sand-covered Martian surface. Because orbital remote sensing analyses only provide a skin-deep view of a planet, bedrock plains provide an excellent window into the composition and processes operating on ancient Mars. Aster's work tied Martian surface composition to the planet's landscape using the Mars Global Surveyor Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES), Mars Odyssey Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE and CTX visible light cameras.

Outside of scientific work, Aster also processes archival spacecraft imagery for public outreach. Their photos have been used in textbooks, and have also appeared in Nature, National Geographic, and the New York Times, among other outlets.

Professional History

Aster Cowart received their BS in Geology from Southern Illinois University in 2013 and a Ph.D. in Geosciences from Stony Brook University in 2022. Their Ph.D. work focused on orbital remote sensing, specializing in thermal infrared spectroscopy and image processing. Beginning in August 2021, they began an internship project with Dr. Aileen Yingst and joined the MSL Curiosity operations team. Upon graduation in May 2022, this internship position was converted into a postdoctoral research position.

Honors and Awards

2012 - USGS-NAGT Student Internship (competitive program for field camp performance).

2017 - Stony Brook David E. King field award (department grant program to support field work).

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