For some Brock University students taught by Professor Mariek Schmidt, the opportunity to participate in her research literally sent them “to the moon”.
Schmidt, a geologist who studies igneous and volcanic rocks on Earth and Mars, is part of a team of world-renowned scientists collaborating on the ongoing Perseverance rover mission to Mars, searching Jezero Crater for signs of life. ancient on the desolate world.
On Thursday, about 18 months after the rover landed on Mars, Schmidt’s team led by Yang Liu at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory published its first research paper on the science.org website, analyzing a massive rock formation on the surface of the planet.
Schmidt said Brock postdoctoral fellow Tanya Kizovski assisted with the research for this paper, while two other master’s students will work with her on future research she conducts.
“They love it. They’re really excited about it,” she said.
Schmidt, a professor of earth sciences at the university, said one of her students accompanied her on a visit to the Jet Propulsion Lab in California last week, “and he was over the moon.”
“He was just taking pictures of everything,” she said, adding that the visit also gave them a glimpse of future projects under development such as the Europa Clipper – a spacecraft being built to research life under the ice of one of Jupiter’s frozen moons.
“He met a lot of people. For the students, they see these people as sort of heroes, but for me, they are just my colleagues,” she said with a laugh.
Schmidt’s research focused on the rover’s Planetary X-Ray Lithochemistry Instrument (PIXL), which uses an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to determine the composition of Martian regolith.
The research paper focused on the origins of a 70,000 square kilometer rock formation that contains large amounts of olivine, a mineral believed to be essential for the development of life. Schmidt said microbes on Earth have been known to eat olivine, which contains oxygen and iron.
“It’s huge. It’s this vast area,” she said, adding that the formation extends from the lowlands in the north of the planet to the Jezero crater, located north of the Martian equator. .
“This large olivine-bearing unit is something we’ve been able to identify from orbit and many studies have speculated where it came from,” she said, adding that some of those studies suggested it might be associated with a meteor impact.
Schmidt said the new study, however, showed that the formation is the result of slow cooling of magma, volcanism or impact.
“This study shows that it is an igneous rock – at least in the Jezero crater – which crystallized from magma and it is really cool that we are able to say what is the origin in that particular area.”
While the search for ancient life is a priority for the Perseverance rover, Schmidt said there are other goals associated with the mission, such as learning more about the planet’s history.
But to determine when the rock formations formed, she said they will have to be sent back to Earth.
“We can use radiometric isotopes to determine when this rock crystallized or formed. But we don’t have that capability with rovers right now or with landers to be able to tell how old a rock is,” Schmidt said.
Although previous Mars missions have estimated the age of the rocks, she said these measurements are based on “a whole bunch of assumptions” and that there are “huge errors in these measurements”.
“If we can bring back a rock and date it accurately, that’s going to be really important in understanding the history of the planet,” she said.
The rover is collecting baseline samples of Martian rock – including samples taken from the olivine-rich rock formation – which will be collected and returned to Earth on a future mission, likely by 2034.
Schmidt said the latest research paper is one of many she has been working on that will be published in the near future.
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