Brock scientist to continue with Mars rover mission studying dust, rocks

On Earth, dust tends to be nothing more than a cause of frustration for people. But for Mariek Schmidt, dust from another planet is something to be studied and examined.

The Brock University scientist has been chosen by the U.S. government’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to continue working on the Mars rover mission.

“I see the dust as what’s in the way, but at the same time, there’s also this really interesting focus of trying to get at what the composition of the dust is,” says the volcanologist and igneous petrologist. “I’m interested in understanding the effects of surface dust on rocks and how that influences rock compositions,” Schmidt says of the next phase of her research.

Schmidt is among 28 researchers who NASA chose last month to be part of its Curiosity Mars rover mission.

In her case, Schmidt is being re-selected to participate on the Mars Science Laboratory Project, which built and operates the rover. The Associate Professor of Earth Sciences’ first term on the project began in 2012.

When the rover Curiosity approaches rocks to examine them, a brush on the rover sometimes clears away dust so that an instrument called Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) can measure the chemical compositions of rock surfaces.

When the rover does not brush the dust away, the APXS’s chemical measurement of the rock is influenced by the presence of the dust, which contains sulpher and chlorine.

Schmidt and her team are developing a technique to separate the dust coating from the surface of the rock, enabling scientists to get a clear chemical measurement of the rock. They will also study the chemistry of the dust itself.

Martian dust, which gives the Martian landscape a “pinky” look, is thought to originate from wind abrasion of the outer parts of rocks.

Schmidt explains that some dust can come from a process called “volcanic exhalation,” where gas is emitted from a volcano.

“The dust on Mars is very, very fine grained,” she explains. “The dust on Earth has bits of rock, too. It contains industrial by-products, pollen, and other biologic materials, so it’s a bit different than dust on Mars.”

Analyzing Martian dust is one of four activities within Schmidt’s research program, “Resolving the Igneous, Alteration, and Dust Coating Histories of Rocks in Gale Crater.”

Schmidt is also:

  • classifying rocks in Gale Crater
  • looking for elements – such as zinc or nickel – in sedimentary and igneous rocks and using these elements to infer how these rocks were formed and altered
  • studying original and altered igneous rocks as a way of better understanding Mars magma – the liquid rock found under the planet’s surface – and how Mars’ mantle – the area between the planet’s core and crust – was formed

“At this point, we’re still understanding the environmental conditions on Mars and whether or not these might be favourable to life,” says Schmidt. “Understanding Mars’ geologic setting is very important.”

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has awarded Schmidt $200,000 over four years for this research.

Schmidt’s research team at Brock includes post-doctoral fellow Matt Izawa and graduate students Jeff Berger and Alicia Thomas.

Schmidt and her colleagues are able to learn more about Martian rocks through digital images that Curiosity collects. These are added to a database that compares previous images to get a better understanding of the different types of rocks.

Curiosity also has a drill that collects rock samples and brings them into the rover’s body. The APXS can analyze the surfaces of rocks and crushed rocks to determine their chemical compositions. Other instruments onboard the rover can measure the mineral content and elemental and isotopic compositions of evolved gases.

Scientists continue to make strides in understanding the so-called “Red Planet.” Last year, NASA announced it had discovered evidence of flowing water on Mars.

Watch Mariek Schmidt talking about her work on the Curiosity Mars rover mission below:

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