Saturn was the first planet I ever looked at through a telescope. Its magnificent rings were just a blur, but I could tell from its oddly misshapen figure that this planet was something else—something grand.

     I had an even more profound moment when I looked through the Great Lick historical 36-inch refractor telescope on Mt. Hamilton during my third year of college. The grandeur of the dome, the way one slew the telescope by hand, and the sliver of moonlight creeping in through the windows of the building added a tantalizing mystique to the already breathtaking encounter between my squinting eyes and Jupiter’s Galilean satellites.

     Science, and planets in particular, has a giddying effect on me. It's these personal discoveries that excite me, constantly reminding me that I am on the right track as a Planetary Science graduate student at the California Institute of Technology.

research interests

ancient mars

Our next-door neighbor is a conundrum. Ancient landforms and minerals indicate that Mars was once much wetter than the bone-dry desert that it is today. But climate models of ancient Mars fail to attain high enough temperatures for liquid water to flow at a time when the Sun was only three-quarters as bright. Even packing Mars's atmosphere with many Earth-atmospheres worth of carbon dioxide can't save our little red friend.

     But what if Mars's early atmosphere had a lot of methane and sulfur, too? I am currently working with scientists at Caltech and JPL to model such a martian atmosphere. These other chemicals are important greenhouse gases on Earth and would play a marked role in both the radiation budget and the chemistry on early Mars, possibly even supplying nutrients useful for life.

present-day mars

Present-day Mars is a world both familiar and alien. Like Earth, Mars has mountains and valleys, sand dunes and ice caps, clouds and dust bunnies. But on Mars there is no sign of active plate tectonics, no sign of long-lived surface water, and, perhaps most intriguingly, no definitive sign of life.

     Ever since the Curiosity rover landed in August 2012, Mars has been at the forefront of scientific and public interest like never before. A mechanical Sherlock Holmes, the Mars Science Laboratory looks for clues that will bring us answers about Mars's past and present.

     So similar yet so different, Mars is a planet we strive to understand because it offers a point of comparison for our Earth. Curiosity's recent confirmation of methane in Mars's atmosphere has piqued my interest. What is its source—biology or geology? And what's responsible for its mysterious temporal variability?

the emergence of life

I love stories, and science tells us the most incredible story of all. Not only are we children of our parents, but of the Earth and the universe as well. How did we become the magnificent biological contraptions that we are? Which forces first culminated in the powers of metabolism and reproduction? What was written on our first page? And are there similar stories all across the cosmos?

     Since day one, I've been interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life. But throughout my studies, I've found that there is still so much we don't know about our own living existence, especially when it comes to our enigmatic birth.

     I just published a paper on modeling processes on early Earth with implications for the theory of the emergence of life at submarine alkaline hydrothermal vents.


An icy moon of Saturn, Titan is the only Solar System object aside from Earth that is sheathed by a thick nitrogen-dominated atmosphere. This vulnerable gaseous envelope—an embodiment of a delicate coupling between photochemistry, radiation, and dynamics—is Nature’s laboratory for the synthesis of complex organic molecules.

     Titan’s 27° obliquity generates pronounced seasonal cycles in its atmosphere, and the Cassini spacecraft has been observing these variations since 2004.

     I have worked on modeling Titan's atmospheric chemistry and dynamics to reproduce the seasonal hydrocarbon distribution. I have also investigated how Titan's ancient atmosphere might have behaved.

example conference presentations


ML Wong, B Charnay, P Gao, YL Yung, MJ Russell (accepted), “Nitrogen oxides in early Earth’s atmosphere as electron acceptors for life’s emergence,” Astrobiology.


ML Wong, S Fan, P Gao, ... (2016), “The photochemistry of Pluto’s atmosphere as illuminated by New Horizons,” Icarus. LINK


P Gao, S Fan, ML Wong, ... (2016), “Constraints on the Microphysics of Pluto's Photochemical Haze from New Horizons Observations,” Icarus. LINK


GR Gladstone, ..., ML Wong, ... (2016), “The Atmosphere of Pluto as Observed by New Horizons,” Science. LINK


ML Wong, YL Yung, GR Gladstone (2015), “Pluto’s Implications for a Snowball Titan,” Icarus. LINK, PRESS RELEASE


YL Yung, EJ Gaidos, ML Wong (2013), “Evolution of Earth’s Atmosphere,” Encyclopedia of Atmospheric Sciences (2nd Edition).


HF Wilson, ML Wong, B Militzer (2013), “Superionic to Superionic Phase Change in Water: Consequences for the Interiors of Uranus and Neptune,” Physical Review Letters. LINK


AF Goncharov, ML Wong, ... (2012), “Thermal conductivity of argon at high pressures and high temperatures,” Journal of Applied Physics. LINK

© 2017 :: michael l. wong :: :: follow your bliss