It was back in 1610 when Galileo Galilei made the first telescopic observation of Mars and ever since, the fascination with the red planet for scientific research has grown astronomically. Over the course of the next century, astronomers have discovered many features of the planet ranging from its rotation and tilt to polar ice caps and the dark patch on its surface known as Syrtis Major Planum, now known to be a large volcanic province, visible in small telescopes.
Like Earth, Mars, the fourth rock from the sun and Earth’s nearest neighbor, formed more than 4.5 billion years ago from minerals and elements, the building blocks of terrestrial planets. It is a great science laboratory for understanding the history of the solar system and how planets, including Earth, were formed and transformed over billions of years. According to NASA, the geological processes evident on Mars now or in the past include impact cratering, wind-driven and river transport of sediment, glaciers, condensation, and sublimation of water, carbon dioxide ice, dust storms and landslides.
Still, there is much to learn about Mars and that treasure trove of the unknown is where scientists at the state’s only Carnegie Research 1 institution – The University of New Mexico – are helping to make an impact – a big impact.
The UNM Institute of Meteoritics
At the center of the research is UNM’s Institute of Meteoritics (IOM), which is housed within UNM’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences (E&PS). Founded in 1944, the IOM is a premier research institution for the study of the early solar system and planetary evolution. It was one of the first institutions in the world devoted to the study of meteorites, and now has a worldwide reputation as one of the best at the research it conducts with a current focus on a wide variety of extraterrestrial materials that takes advantage of the state-of-the-art laboratory facilities in Earth and Planetary Sciences.
Horton Newsom, senior research scientist at the IOM, is the lead on much of the research involving Mars and has been studying its many different facets “way before Mars was cool” says a colleague. Newsom is one of the latest scientists at the IOM to continue the long history of Mars research at UNM dating back to the early chemical analysis of the Martian surface in the 1970s with the Viking spacecraft and X-ray fluorescence and the involvement of former IOM Director Klaus Keil. An additional connection within the IOM at the time included UNM alumnus Larry Crumpler, now a research curator at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History. Crumpler worked with his master’s thesis advisor, the late Professor Wolf Elston, on Mars-related topics in the late 1970’s. Crumpler is also collaborating with Newsom’s group at UNM on Mars research and is a science team member on the new Perseverance rover mission.
Newsom’s work includes various processes involving soil, water, impact craters using remote sensing data and terrestrial analogs, daily operations of the rover Curiosity, and to some extent, operations on the Perseverance rover along with colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
“UNM has been involved with Mars exploration and surface investigations for a very long time, many decades in fact. There’s a long history there,” said Newsom, whose very first paper as a grad student in the early-80s involved impact cratering on Mars and implications for life and interactions of water and impact craters.
Later, in the 1990s, Newsom, who came to UNM in 1984, was part of a team that borrowed a rover from the Russians, did some testing and published several papers. He was later invited to participate in the development and proposal involving the ChemCam instrument on the Mars Curiosity rover with Roger Wiens, a planetary scientist at LANL and continues to work daily on that mission.
“Our group is still highly active with the Curiosity rover,” said Newsom, a co-investigator who along with E&PS faculty member Dr. Louis Scuderi leads a student research team. “Curiosity has been very successful working on Mars for eight-and-a-half years and we’re still going very strong with that project. The ChemCam project involves a number of our students who started on the project as graduate students and are now involved with that mission and newer missions.”
The Mars Science Lab and Curiosity
One of the main goals of the Mars Science Lab (MSL) and the Curiosity Rover mission is to evaluate the evidence for habitable environments on Mars. The laser that’s part of the ChemCam instrument on Curiosity can vaporize rock and evaluate the remains to assess whether or not there are any signs of life in the form of water. It can also study the geologic chemistry of nearby, surrounding areas to help researchers determine what direction to send the rover.
“We've been spectacularly successful at that before we landed. We had thought from our orbital observations that it looked like there had been a large lake in Gale Crater. We also saw some evidence of rivers flowing into that lake in the form of alluvial fans,” said Newsom. “When Curiosity actually landed, right at our landing site, we saw evidence of rounded pebbles that confirmed right away that we had, in fact, landed on a riverbed. So that was terribly exciting, but we've gone way beyond that. With all the chemistry equipment on board, including the ChemCam, we've been able to document that the lake waters were probably freshwater.”
Dr. Nina Lanza, a UNM alumna who works at LANL, is one of Newsom’s former students currently playing a major role in the ChemCam instrument's engineering team. She works with Wiens, who was the principal investigator on Curiosity overseeing the development of the ChemCam instrument, and is now the PI for the SuperCam on the Perseverance rover. Lanza was recently named as the ChemCam principal investigator taking over for Wiens.
“We have many students from UNM who have gone up to work with the science teams and the Mars Science Laboratory at Los Alamos, and they are helping to run the instruments on Curiosity and Perseverance,” said Newsom. “That’s been a big success for us in getting our students involved with work at LANL and continuing on the job. It’s been one of the real pleasures of being involved with these missions.”
UNM’s Larger Mars Team
As a co-investigator on the Curiosity mission, Newsom has also been able to involve other scientists as part of UNM’s larger Mars team including Earth & Planetary Sciences Professors Laura Crossey and Louis Scuderi. Several students are involved in the research that’s contributing to understanding the history of Mars with a particular focus on Gale Crater. Part of Crossey’s experience involves hydrothermal circulation in geothermal systems where a big impact event might have potentially left a chemical footprint such as the pumping of fluid through rocks long after the impact, such as the location of the craters where the rovers landed.
Newsom and Crossey believe large impact craters represent excellent locations to search for environments suitable for the evolution of life on Mars. Determining the origin of the soil on Mars can provide clues to the evolution of the surface and whether or not the red planet may be able to sustain human life one day. There’s much work to be done before that possibility can be ascertained.
“Both of the Mars rovers landed in craters that have a central uplift feature, which are the kind of big events where we have terrestrial analogs on earth, where scientists see the pumping of fluids,” said Crossey. “As we know, water is super important; water is life. Our experience is looking at these geologic systems that are planetary in nature with an eye toward what might be out there. These hydrothermal environments are very important on a planet like Mars in terms of where life might evolve.”
Crossey’s research, in collaboration with scientists at the MSL at LANL, involves the study of boron, which was discovered in 2016 on Mars by the Curiosity rover. Boron is an interesting element with unique chemistry when it's in aqueous systems Crossey says.
“We're looking at minerals because we have more detailed knowledge and an idea of the types of minerals that are present in those rocks that are exposed on Mars because of Curiosity,” said Crossey. “We’re looking at the element boron because when it is dissolved in water it becomes borate, and it has a way of interacting with an organic compound called ribose, a precursor for amino acids and all kinds of things that are essential for life. It’s a super interesting element with unique chemistry.”
The Perseverance mission
Newsom and Scuderi currently co-lead an active UNM team on the Perseverance mission that includes Ph.D. students Zach Gallegos, Tim Nagle-McNaughton, Joshua Williams and Dan Mason, involving Jezero Crater, the recent landing site of the Perseverance rover. They’ve been involved with some of the work on the characterization and selection of Jezero Crater that served as the landing site for Perseverance. The crater was likely once a Martian lake similar to Gale Crater. Based partly on their work, NASA determined that the delta found in Jezero crater may be ideal for its search for signs of past life on the red planet.
Scuderi, a geomorphologist with a background in remote sensing, and a science collaborator on the Curiosity mission is working on research with the students involving the environmental conditions on Mars and other planetary bodies. In recently published papers in the journals Planetary and Space Sciences and Remote Sensing, the team was looking at features called Transverse Aeolian Ridges (TARs), which are poorly understood bedforms unique to the surface of Mars. TARs have sand dune-type features but are not really sand dunes.
“There's no analog to them on earth and they seem to be indicative of a past climate that was probably denser with higher wind velocities that actually moved debris around,” said Scuderi. “We think that this climatic change happened relatively recently and that it might be due to changes in the tilt of Mars on its axis. Unlike Earth, which has a moon that keeps Earth’s tilt within a fairly narrow range, Mars can actually tilt significantly on its axis because it doesn't have that a large moon to control the tilt or obliquity as we call it. If Mars polar axis tilts to a position where the poles are pointed relatively towards the sun and melts the ice caps, it produces a thicker atmosphere, which in turn can produce higher velocity winds that have more force to them, which tells us a bit about Mars and its climate.”
Other key contributions to the Perseverance mission involve research with the “SuperCam” an intricate instrument that builds upon the ChemCam technology. Mounted on the rover, the SuperCam examines rocks and soil with a camera, laser and spectrometers. The instrument allows scientists to better identify the chemical and mineral makeup of a rock sample after being zapped by a laser from more than 20 feet away.
“Typically, for the last eight years, the average time I spend on telecoms and work related to the mission is at least 15 hours a week,” said Newsom, quickly adding, “and that's just being on telecoms and staying on top of what's going on with all the operations. During operations, we have our planning sessions to decide what the rover is going to be doing. It starts with almost two hours of the science team planning all the operations and scientific investigations. It's quite stressful to get all this in. One of our goals always, since this is such a huge responsibility and since a large amount of money has been spent on this, is to take it extremely seriously.”
Newsom, Scuderi, Crossey and the entire UNM Mars team also meet weekly to discuss and analyze current data and information and plan future activities. “We attempt to squeeze every bit of science out of the Rover that we can for every day that it runs,” they said. “If we have three minutes left over, we find something to do. We take another picture somewhere or expand our analysis, or we do something to make sure that we utilize this incredibly valuable piece of equipment.”
These projects studying and delving deeper into the various processes of the Martian surface and subsequent analysis, as well as Curiosity’s daily operations, are among the more than 25 projects at UNM involving undergraduate and graduate students who are benefiting from the various Mars research projects associated with NASA’s current exploration of the red planet. With more than four decades of associated research involving Mars, it’s safe to say The University of New Mexico’s research efforts into the study of Mars will continue for many years to come.