Curious Mars

Mars: January 2009

Astrobiology. October 2008, 8(5): 1001-1011.

We report on the design, operation, and data analysis methods employed on the VNIR imaging spectrometer instrument that was part of the Mars Astrobiology Research and Technology Experiment (MARTE). The imaging spectrometer is a hyperspectral scanning pushbroom device sensitive to VNIR wavelengths from 400-1000 nm. During the MARTE project, the spectrometer was deployed to the Rio Tinto region of Spain. We analyzed subsets of three cores from Rio Tinto using a new band modeling technique. We found most of the MARTE drill cores to contain predominantly goethite, though spatially coherent areas of hematite were identified in Core 23. We also distinguished non Fe-bearing minerals that were subsequently analyzed by X-ray diffraction (XRD) and found to be primarily muscovite. We present drill core maps that include spectra of goethite, hematite, and non Fe-bearing minerals. Astrobiology 8, 1001-1011.

Astrobiology. October 2008, 8(5): 1013-1021.

The 2005 Mars Astrobiology Research and Technology Experiment (MARTE) project conducted a simulated 1-month Mars drilling mission in the Rio Tinto district, Spain. Dry robotic drilling, core sampling, and biological and geological analytical technologies were collectively tested for the first time for potential use on Mars. Drilling and subsurface sampling and analytical technologies are being explored for Mars because the subsurface is the most likely place to find life on Mars. The objectives of this work are to describe drilling, sampling, and analytical procedures; present the geological analysis of core and borehole material; and examine lessons learned from the drilling simulation.

Astrobiology. October 2008, 8(5): 1049-1060.

Sampling of subsurface rock may be required to detect evidence of past biological activity on Mars. The Mars Astrobiology Research and Technology Experiment (MARTE) utilized the Rio Tinto region, Spain, as a Mars analog site to test dry drilling technologies specific to Mars that retrieve subsurface rock for biological analysis. This work examines the usefulness of visible-near infrared (VNIR) (450-1000 nm) point spectrometry to characterize ferric iron minerals in core material retrieved during a simulated Mars drilling mission. VNIR spectrometry can indicate the presence of aqueously precipitated ferric iron minerals and, thus, determine whether biological analysis of retrieved rock is warranted. Core spectra obtained during the mission with T1 (893-897 nm) and T2 (644-652 nm) features indicate goethite-dominated samples, while relatively lower wavelength T1 (832-880 nm) features indicate hematite. Hematite/goethite molar ratios varied from 0 to 1.4, and within the 880-898 nm range, T1 features were used to estimate hematite/goethite molar ratios. Post-mission X-ray analysis detected phyllosilicates, which indicates that examining beyond the VNIR (e.g., shortwave infrared, 1000-2500 nm) will enhance the detection of other minerals formed by aqueous processes.

Astrobiology. October 2008, 8(5): 1023-1047.

A search for evidence of cryptic life in the subsurface region of a fractured Paleozoic volcanosedimentary deposit near the source waters of the Rio Tinto River (Iberian pyrite belt, southwest Spain) was carried out by Mars Astrobiology Research and Technology Experiment (MARTE) project investigators in 2003 and 2004. This conventional deep-drilling experiment is referred to as the MARTE ground truth drilling project. Boreholes were drilled at three sites, and samples from extracted cores were analyzed with light microscopy, scanning electron microscopy-energy dispersive spectroscopy (SEM-EDS), X-ray diffraction (XRD), and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy. Core leachates were analyzed with ion chromatography, and borehole fluids were analyzed with ion and gas chromatography. Key variables of the groundwater system (e.g., pO2, pH, and salinity) exhibit huge ranges probably due to surficial oxygenation of overall reducing waters, physical mixing of waters, and biologically mediated water-rock interactions.

This research focuses on the general circulation and climate system of Mars. There have been 7 successful spacecraft missions to Mars in the past 10 years returning valuable new data about the thermal structure of the atmosphere, the seasonal cycles of dust, water, and carbon dioxide, and the nature of the surface and subsurface. Our group interprets these data using a Mars General Circulation Model. We use the model to simulate the observations and determine what physical and dynamical processes are responsible for them. The model includes a full surface heat budget, a cloud microphysics package, a two-stream radiation code for gases and aerosols, a level-2 boundary layer scheme, mass conserving tracer transport algorithms, and CO2 condensation/sublimation physics. Topics we are currently studying include coupling between the present day dust, water, and CO2 cycles, the effect of orbital changes on past climates, and the nature of the early Martian atmosphere when surface pressures were thought to be higher than they are today. The goal of this work is to understand how the Martian atmosphere and climate system have evolved through time. Deadline: Feb 1, 2009