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Dr David Flannery

Planetary scientist

David Flannery

QUT planetary scientist Dr David Flannery is living his dream career – helping NASA on its Mars rover mission.

David’s STEM career literally rocks. A planetary scientist, adjunct professor and senior lecturer at QUT in Brisbane, he’s also a key member of NASA’s team working on the Mars Perseverance Rover mission. The rover landed on the Red Planet in February 2021 after a seven-month, 472-million-kilometre journey from Earth.

David is using his geology, palaeobiology and astrobiology expertise to decide which Red Planet rocks the rover will collect and analyse. He is also mapping out the path that the rover will take across the Martian surface to get to those rocks. The rover needs to get the most useful scientific knowledge it can during its time on Mars, so choosing the right rocks to study is crucial.

“What’s also exciting is that some of the rocks this mission samples will be the first to be transported to Earth,” says David.

“We will find them and collect them on this mission, then future missions will transport them here. The rovers can already do amazing in-situ science on Mars itself but if we want to really understand the planet’s past and present, we need to analyse those rocks here on Earth.”

RELATED: Curiosity rover celebrates 3000 days on Mars

Do what you love

David also helps work on one of the instruments on the Perseverance Rover’s arm: the planetary instrument for X-ray lithochemistry, or PIXL for short. PIXL is an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer and high-resolution imager which maps elements to help tell us what Mars is made of. PIXL is led by QUT alumnus Dr Abigail Allwood, who is based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“QUT has a very exciting role to play in the mission,” David says. “We hope to participate in NASA operations and contribute to the science because that’s what we really have to offer.”

Not only is David flying high with his planetary scientist career, he’s also doing what he’s passionate about! “What I do is a huge amount of fun and if it wasn’t fun I wouldn’t do it,” he says. “It might sound cheesy but if you follow your interests you’ll be good at it and you’ll apply yourself well.”

David also says the pathway to the right career may not be straightforward. “To be honest, I had no master plan when I was younger but I studied things that interested me. I had a bit of a meandering journey through a variety of fields to where I am now. 

“So, my advice is: do something you are genuinely interested in, don’t expect riches – at least not immediately – and be prepared to take some risks.” – Matthew Brace 

David’s study and career pathway to becoming a planetary scientist

  • Bachelor of Science (Geology), Macquarie University
  • Visiting Research Scholar, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, MIT
  • PhD in Astrobiology, UNSW
  • Research Scientist, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
  • Adjunct Professor / Research Fellow, QUT

Interested in becoming a planetary scientist? Be sure to check out all our science stories.

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