Unravelling the Mysteries of Mars

An image of Mars

Story by David Irwin | Photo courtesy of NASA-JPL-Caltech.USGS

Little is still known about the Red Planet, but faculty, students and alumni are conquering the great space unknown.

We Earthlings have long been captivated by what occupies the unfathomable vastness of our universe, now with a diameter we can see of about 93 billion light years. In our own solar system of eight major planets, the mysteries of Mars are particularly fascinating, mainly because it is among our closest planetary neighbors — a mere 140 million or so miles. 

The close proximity has prompted science fiction writers and filmmakers to ponder and depict Mars for decades, creating widespread intrigue about the planet in our popular culture. Hollywood adapted Andy Weir’s novel “The Martian” into a successful film starring Matt Damon. Novels like “The Martian Chronicles” (Ray Bradbury) and “The Sirens of Titan” (Kurt Vonnegut) and others feature Martian encounters. “My Favorite Martian” was a hit among TV viewers in the 1960s, and Orson Welles scared people into believing Martians were invading when he aired a live radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel “The War of the Worlds.” 

The fictionalized picture of Mars entertains us, but Geneseo faculty, students and alumni are among the thousands of scientists around the world engaged in the serious study of Mars and have learned a great deal. However, mysteries abound. What is its composition and environment and how did it reach its current condition? Does life exist there or did it ever? Could Mars possibly be colonized? 

To answer those questions, they use high-quality images and data from sophisticated land-based telescopes, satellites orbiting Mars and the numerous stationary and roving landers that NASA has placed onto the Red Planet (a name given to Mars because of the visible reddish tint reflected from the rusty iron-oxide coating on its surface). 

“What intrigues us about Mars is its similarity to Earth,” says Nick Warner ’00, planetary geologist and assistant professor of geological sciences at Geneseo. “Mars is what Earth would look like if it died. It started like Earth but lost most of its atmosphere and possibly its internal heat.” 

All small planets, says Warner, such as Mars, Mercury and even our moon, experience this natural “dying off ” process, a cool-down that occurs over billions of years. It eventually will lead to the extinction of volcanoes and other vital geological processes on Earth that preserve its atmosphere and magnetic fields. 

“It’s not clear when Earth will cool down to that extent, but it likely will take billions of years,” says Warner. “We’re trying to understand the interior structure and heat flux of Mars to get a sense of how fast it cooled down. That could tell us something about the future of our planet.” 

A selfie taken by the Mars Curiosity Rover.

A selfie taken by the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover. /Provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

THE MOST IN-DEPTH VIEW OF THE RED PLANET

Warner, himself a Geneseo geological sciences major, has worked with NASA for eight years on Mars exploration. His post-doctoral adviser at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory ( JPL), Matthew Golombek, got him quickly involved in NASA missions at JPL, including a key role in the most recent Mars lander mission, InSight, which is revealing new geological information about the planet. 

The robotic explorer contains sophisticated equipment for the first in-depth exploration of the crust, mantle and core — its “inner space.” Some other missions to Mars have included the search for evidence of life, but InSight is strictly focused on the planet’s interior structure and behavior.

Warner was a lead geologist in recommending where the InSight lander would place its sensitive geological instruments on the surface of Mars — and where it should land. 

InSight made a near-perfect touchdown last November. As it did, Warner watched at JPL with two student lab assistants, who are aspiring geologists: Megan Kopp ’19 and Alyssa DeMott ’19. They joined him at JPL to help with assessing site options for placement of InSight’s seismometer and heat flow probe. Both students are skilled with GIS (Geographic Information System), the powerful software geologists use to analyze imagery and map the surface of Earth and other planets. 

As Warner, Kopp and DeMott gathered in a room at JPL to experience the tense moments prior to the landing, some 200 of their fellow students and faculty gathered on the Geneseo campus to watch a live telecast of the JPL control room operations.

Everyone joined in the simultaneous cheer when the successful landing was confirmed. 

“It was a great moment for us to be there and share the excitement,” says Warner. “We wanted it to land on a ‘parking lot,’ and that’s what it did. The flat surface is exactly what we needed for our instruments to collect the most reliable geological information.” 

Assistant Professor Nick Warner and two students in the planetary geology lab at Geneseo.

Megan Kopp ’19, NickWarner ’00, assistant professor of geological sciences, and Alyssa DeMott ’19 conduct research for the InSight lander at SUNY Geneseo. / Photo by Keith Walters ’11

 

THE POST-LANDING ANALYSIS 

Immediately after the landing, Warner and the students spent a month painstakingly analyzing images and other data from InSight to recommend precisely where to direct the lander to place its seismometer and probe. Among other tasks, they mapped the area, analyzed slopes and counted and measured rocks that could have been impediments to finding the best place. 

InSight was also a first in another way. It was the first mission to use a robotic arm to deploy such instruments onto the surface of a planet away from a lander — and the placement went without a hitch. As of this writing, the probe was having some difficulty reaching the planned depth but the seismometer was performing well. 

Warner says the seismometer will measure Mars quakes, and an onboard tracking antenna will measure the planet’s rotation and wobble. Both will help determine whether the core is solid or liquid. The probe will measure heat radiating from the core, revealing how the planet cooled over time and whether it’s still geologically dynamic. 

“My involvement with the InSight mission is the most significant work I’ve done in the space program,” says Warner. “I’m looking forward to seeing the data InSight sends us.” 

For DeMott, a Geneseo geological sciences major, working with noted scientists from around the world on a space mission was a defining moment in her academic career. 

“They treated us as equals, and spoke to us as co-workers,” she says. “That gave me a lot of confidence in my skills and knowledge. We were using things on the job that we learned in my geology classes, and everything went smoothly. It was great to see all of that play out.” 

Kopp, a geological sciences and education double major, conferred with scientists from France, Germany, the United Kingdom and other countries. 

“To realize that working on such amazing space projects can be someone’s normal is pretty awesome,” she says, “and it became my normal for a few weeks.” 

STRONG EVIDENCE OF WATER ON MARS 

Mars scientists are attempting to confirm the current or past presence of water on Mars, but the evidence is overwhelming of a partial aquatic history. 

Aaron Weintraub ’16 is one of those scientists. After obtaining a physics degree at Geneseo, Weintraub went directly into a doctoral program under the advisement of Christopher Edwards at Northern Arizona University, where he became the first Ph.D. candidate of the newly formed doctoral program there in physics and astronomy. At Geneseo, Weintraub did an interdepartmental senior thesis project on the intersection of physics and geological sciences with Aaron Steinhauer, associate professor of physics and astronomy, and Warner as co-advisers. 

Weintraub’s doctoral research is focused on gaining a better understanding of river evolution on Mars. He says geologic eras are evident on Mars just as they are on Earth, and examining geological changes between those periods could provide a revealing insight into the history of water on the Red Planet. 

“I’m looking at how water behaved within the river channels on Mars some 3.7 billion years ago with the hope of understanding the environmental conditions that were responsible for the change we see in fluvial [river] history,” says Weintraub. “These river channels on Mars are incredibly similar to river channels here on Earth, so we can assume that water most certainly existed at some point for some amount of time on Mars. One great debate about Mars is whether water existed continually under warm and wet conditions like we have here, or whether the conditions were cold and dry with water appearing intermittently.” 

Weintraub says understanding why Mars underwent such a drastic shift in climate, from having substantial amounts of water to its current cold and barren state, may provide evidence on how Earth’s climate could evolve. 

“With global warming being one of the most pressing issues facing humankind, any insight into the circumstances surrounding major climate shifts is incredibly valuable,” he says. 

NASA INTERNSHIPS AND THE MARS 2020 MISSION 

Alyssa Werynski ’15, also a geological sciences major at Geneseo, had a surprise entry into the NASA world through rare consecutive internships, the most recent of which had her helping with compiling sites for human landings on Mars. She says her experiences have provided perspective about fundamental philosophies such as the origin of the universe and how other planetary environments compare to Earth.

“It inspires young and old minds alike to learn about space and STEM fields in general,” says Werynski.

Her first internship, at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, focused on quantifying the rotational period of asteroids. An internship at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia examined how planetary science could directly benefit the safety of astronauts going to Mars. 

“I helped compile 50 proposed sites for future human landings on Mars and placed them into a database,” says Werynski. “My job was to map the sites, which was basically what I did as an undergrad at Geneseo in helping Professor Warner map out potential landing sites for the Mars 2020 mission.”

Werynski says astrophysics and planetary science is very collaborative among disciplines such as engineering, astronomy, geology, biology and others.

“Such a collaborative nature usually results in mutually beneficial field advancements such as new technologies or methodologies,” she says.

After her internships, Werynski completed a master’s degree at the University of Western Ontario, which included an enrichment opportunity with NASA’s HiRISE camera. It takes high-resolution images of the planet from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for detailed study of surface structure.

EXAMINING THE POSSIBILITY OF LIFE

The geological exploration of Mars was underway years before InSight’s landing. In 2012, the Curiosity rover touched ground to analyze the geology of the Gale Crater on Mars, helping to gather evidence of past or present habitability on the planet. What it found may help NASA in potential future human exploration. 

Joanna Clark Hogancamp ’13, also a Geneseo geological sciences major, applies her background in geochemistry in working with the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument on the Curiosity rover. She is a full-time member of the Mars group at the NASA Johnson Space Center on the JETS contract (Jacobs Engineering, Technology and Science). The contract, through the Jacobs Engineering Group, provides science, engineering and technical services to major NASA programs. She also is a year into a geological sciences doctoral program at the University of Houston.

“The position on the JETS contract at NASA was my first exposure to planetary science, and it’s very exciting to apply my knowledge and skills in geology to help understand what Mars was like in the past,” says Hogancamp. 

As a payload uplink lead for the SAM instrument on Curiosity, she has delivered commands to drop off samples to the SAM instrument and analyze their composition. An onboard oven heats the samples and produces gases (e.g., oxygen), which are sent to a mass spectrometer or other measurement devices, and the results are sent back to Earth for Hogancamp and the SAM team to analyze.

“We’re using Curiosity to explore the geology of Mars to assess past habitability,” she says. “We also believe some of this data could be used for future exploration projects, including helping us send humans to Mars.”

One of the many challenges of sending humans to Mars is providing water to sustain them while there. Hogancamp worked on a project that involved using mineralogical and chemical data from Curiosity to create a Mars soil simulant for a large-scale water extraction device that could possibly be used to provide water on a planetary body such as Mars. 

“The project is part of an effort at the Johnson Space Center to utilize resources such as soil and rocks on other planets for human uses such as drinking water, rocket propellant, and oxygen for use as breathable air,” says Hogancamp. 

Hogancamp was lead author of a poster on the Mars soil simulant recently presented at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. She also was lead author on a recent paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research that compared SAM-like laboratory data from chlorate samples run in the lab to SAM data from Mars. The information is helping the team better understand the Gale Crater soil and rock composition in addition to the chlorine cycle on Mars and past environmental and geochemical conditions, and also could have implications for habitability. 

ARE WE ALONE?

Any discussion of Mars inevitably gravitates toward the questions of whether life exists, or ever existed, on the planet and if it can be colonized. 

Those from Geneseo working on Mars projects are predominantly involved with the geological rather than astrobiological sciences. But their important work on surface structure and composition is adding to the efforts to identify signs of past habitability on the Red Planet and ensure further successful landings and human exploration.

Hogancamp notes that the SAM instrument has detected molecules that contain carbon, an essential life element, although the source may or may not be biological. The SAM team and the European Space Agency, using the Mars Express orbiter, recently confirmed a temporary increase of methane on Mars in the area where Curiosity is exploring, but it remains unclear whether the source was biological or geological. Methane is not a life requirement but can be an indicator of life.

“The recent discoveries from Curiosity have led many to believe that ancient Mars was habitable and certainly contained liquid water, although we have not found evidence of past or current life,” says Hogancamp. “The Mars 2020 rover will include an instrument called SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) with the ability to detect organic material using Raman spectroscopy. Those results could prove to be very interesting.”

Warner’s landing site proposal for Mars 2020 was among the few making the final cut for consideration. 

“Finding life on Mars is a difficult quest but definitely worth doing,” says Warner. “To land in the right location and find a specific organism or fossil is a major challenge. It’s a needle in a haystack scenario.”

Warner says evidence of life on Mars could be underground, protected from the radioactivity, the frigid temperatures and other harsh surface elements. Getting equipment to Mars capable of exploring the deeper subsurface for signs of life, he says, would be a huge task and likely require the presence of astronauts. Werynski’s work of helping to identify potential landing sites and Hogancamp’s work on water extraction could play a role in NASA’s plans for those human missions.

For Kopp, one of the students who worked with Warner after InSight’s landing, confirming signs of life on Mars would deliver a powerful message about minding our own planet.

“It could help tell us how to care for our own planet and how other similar processes on Earth may have existed to shape our own story,” she says. “We are learning from Mars what may be happening here now.”

Weintraub takes the question of life on Mars a step further, saying such a discovery would beg an additional intriguing question.

“If we confirm life on Mars, we would have to ask if it started there or even came in from someplace else,” he says. “One idea is that microbes or potential life-forming material were perhaps brought to Mars and maybe Earth via thermally active asteroids.” 

A LONG ROAD TO COLONIZATION

If colonization of Mars is a viable option for humans, Warner says such an effort is at least decades, if not hundreds of years away.

“There’s a push to return to the moon now, which may be a stepping stone for human Mars exploration missions,” says Warner. “Those landings would probably be in the 2030s to 2040s timeframe, meaning any actual colonization that would potentially occur would likely be beyond our lifetime. Of course, all of this depends on funding and public support.”

Hogancamp agrees that human exploration of Mars would be a monumental task.

“Certainly the work of the Curiosity team has contributed knowledge that will help with potential future human exploration of Mars,” she says. “But there is much work to do in getting humans there, protecting them from radiation, and providing water and breathable air.”

Geneseo alumni in the space program and their colleagues around the world have accepted such challenges and will continue to tackle the bewildering mysteries of the universe. 

“There is so much we don’t understand,” says Weintraub, “but we should never stop trying to answer these questions.” 

Author: geneseoscene

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