Brock prof collecting ancient Earth rocks in support of Mars mission

A Brock University researcher is among a group of scientists collecting ancient rocks on Earth that will play an important role in the quest to learn more about Mars.

Professor of Earth Sciences Mariek Schmidt recently returned from an expedition on the Isle of Rum that in addition to Brock included researchers from the University of Glasgow, University of Cambridge and University of Leicester.

The island off the west coast in Scotland, characterized by dramatic mountains and extinct volcanoes, is one of several sites scientists will be visiting to collect rock samples as part of the Mars Sample Return Campaign led by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA).

The campaign is assembling a defined set of rock samples from around the world that are comparable to those found on the Red Planet.

A Participating Scientist with the Mars 2020 mission, Schmidt is part of the team that initially identified and classified rocks collected by NASA’s Perseverance Rover during its exploration of the Séítah Formation within Jezero Crater on Mars.

A hammer and safety glasses rests on a pile of rocks.

The field team used tools such as hammers, crowbars and straps to extract rock samples.

Intensive study of the rocks from Rum and other sample sites will crucially help scientists understand what methods of handling, testing and analysis will work best in readiness for when the Martian rocks are scheduled to be brought to Earth in 2033.

As the first samples from another planet, the Mars rocks are thought to present the best opportunity to reveal clues about its early evolution, including the potential for past life.

The approximately 90-million-year-old rocks on the Isle of Rum are characteristically very similar to the igneous rocks found on Mars.

“They have similar mineralogy, texture and chemistry,” said Schmidt. “Both contain the mineral olivine, which is a glassy green mineral that usually crystallizes in a high-temperature magma chamber.”

In her work with the Mars 2020 mission, Schmidt focuses on using one of the rover’s seven key instruments: the Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), which is an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer used to determine the fine scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials.

“It was exciting to see rocks like those we encountered on Mars in the field on Earth,” Schmidt said. “We were able to strike them with a hammer, feel their heft and scan a broken surface with a hand lens.”

Some of the rocks collected from Rum and other sites will go to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California, where scientists will determine how to access samples to minimize contamination, test imaging and other technology, and develop sample analysis procedures.

Schmidt said scientists will also be able to request rock samples from Earth to demonstrate their proposed work on Martian rocks.

In total, 200 to 300 kilograms of rock will be collected from each of the five to six sites across the world.

This October, Schmidt will be leading sample collection from thick lava flows exposed at Hart Mountain in southeastern Oregon.

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