Cynthia Phillips

Cynthia Phillips
Senior Research Scientist
University of Arizona: PhD in Planetary Science, minor in Geoscience; Harvard University: AB in Astronomy & Astrophysics, and Physics
Curriculum Vitae: 
Planetary Geology
We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. - T. S. Eliot

An expert in processing spacecraft images of the planets, Cynthia Phillips is particularly interested in the search for active geological processes on such worlds as Mars, Europa, Io, and Enceladus. Regions of current, ongoing geological activity are particularly germane from an astrobiological perspective because they could represent locations where liquid water could be present today. Such active regions are also places where material from underneath could be brought up to the surface, where it’s much easier for scientists to detect using either remote sensing techniques or landed spacecraft.

Cynthia has compared the images taken of Jupiter’s moons Europa and Io by the Galileo and Voyager spacecraft to search for any changes that may have occurred on their surfaces. In the case of Europa, which is believed to have a mammoth, liquid ocean beneath its icy surface, active regions would pinpoint locations where liquid water is located close to the crust. Such areas would be important targets for a future Europa spacecraft mission, and perhaps one day could be landing sites. While she has not yet found any such active regions on Europa, Cynthia continues to search the Galileo dataset. She has also used her detection techniques to document ongoing volcanic activity on Jupiter’s pizza-like moon, Io.

Cynthia is also interested in active geologic processes on other moons and planets, including investigations of dark slope streaks on Mars which would be related to liquid water at or near the surface. She has studied fluvial features on Saturn's moon Titan, and is currently using stereo photogrammetry to create 3d models of the surfaces of the icy satellites of Jupiter and Saturn to study crater relaxation, which can provide insights into subsurface thermal structure and history.

Cynthia's interests in education have led to the two student internship programs she runs. The SETI Institute Astrobiology Research Experience for Undergraduates program (, funded by the NSF, brings about 15 college students to the SETI Institute each summer from all over the country for a 10-week science internship program. Cynthia also runs the URSA internship program (, funded by NASA, which pairs 6 undergraduates from nearby San Jose State University with SETI Institute scientists for a paid academic-year internship.

In addition to her scientific research, Cynthia is also the co-author of over a dozen popular-level books on subjects including Einstein, Astronomy, and Space Exploration. One of her most recent books is Space Exploration for Dummies (

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REU SITE: Life in the Universe - Astronomy and Planetary Science at the SETI Institute

The SETI Institute (SI) proposes a renewed REU site with a focus on astronomy and planetaryscience, with a connecting theme of astrobiology. REU students will be partnered with scientists to conduct a broad range of research projects at facilities available onsite and nearby atthe NASA Ames Research Center.

Crater Relaxation and Stereo Imaging of the Icy Satellites of Jupiter and Saturn

Understanding the evolution of Solar System diversity is a top-level question identified by the 2006 NASA Solar System Exploration Roadmap. The satellite systems of Jupiter and Saturn provide opportunities to compare the very different evolutions of satellites which likely had similar starting points. These satellite systems range from currently active (Io and Enceladus) to geologically dead (Callisto and Mimas). Different satellites have evidently experienced radically different thermal histories, but as yet few quantitative constraints on these histories have been published.

Undergraduate Research at the SETI Institute in Astrobiology (USRA): a Partnership Between the SETI Institute and San Jose State University

Students who participate in hands-on undergraduate research projects are more likely to pursue advanced degrees in STEM disciplines (Russell et al., Science 316, 548-549, 2007).