Science & Tech

Exploring Mars Through Similar Environments on Earth

The project is funded by NASA’s Planetary Science and Technology Through Analog Research program.
By Leslie Lee, Texas A&M University College of Geosciences October 15, 2018

An example of terrain showing fluvial sorting in Iceland.
An example of terrain showing fluvial sorting in Iceland.

Ewan Reid/Texas A&M Geosciences

If you’re looking for a place on Earth that’s similar to the environment found on Mars, where would you go?

One scientifically correct answer is Iceland, specifically near Thingvellir and Askja. And thanks to NASA, that’s where Texas A&M University Department of Geology and Geophysics Associate Professor Dr. Ryan Ewing will be conducting research next summer.

Ewing is the lead principal investigator of a project recently funded by a $1.1 million grant from NASA’s Planetary Science and Technology Through Analog Research program.

“In this program, scientists go to environments on Earth that are similar to environments on other worlds, and conduct scientific research, but we also do it in a way that mimics how that research might be approached on another world,” Ewing said. “So, we’re doing a science project but also an operational, engineering project.”

Examining Icelandic Terrain, An Analog Of Mars

Ewing and a team of researchers will travel to two sites in Iceland that are similar to environments on Mars because the terrain includes: an abundance of igneous, basaltic rock and sediment; glaciers; fluvial systems similar to Martian ancient river systems; and wind-blown material, similar to the sand dunes and ripples that cover Mars today. The project officially begins in January 2019, and the team will conduct research in Iceland in the summer of 2019 and summer of 2020.

This rover at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico will be used by the research team in Iceland.
This rover at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico will be used by the research team in Iceland.

Ryan Ewing/Texas A&M Geosciences

“Our science question is, how does the sediment in these basaltic environments chemically and physically evolve?” he said. “How are sediments chemically altered from their source rock from weathering in a cold climate? How do sediments change through physical abrasion and sorting across different environments, whether it’s in a river, or in a windblown system?”

The project team includes: Dr. Elizabeth B. Rampe, NASA Johnson Space Center, Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division; Dr. Briony Horgan, Purdue University, Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences; Dr. Mathieu Lapotre, Stanford University, Department of Geological Sciences; and Dr. Karl Iagnemma, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Robotic Mobility Group.

Ewing’s science team is also partnering with a private space company Mission Control Space Services, Inc., led by Ewan Reid. This public-private collaboration will also include Mission Control investigators Melissa Battler and Michele Faragalli.

Three Texas A&M students, two undergraduates and one doctoral, will also be part of the research team “from start to finish,” he said, and will conduct research in Iceland.

“We’ll spend about three weeks in Iceland each summer, and we’ll go to two different locations,” Ewing said. “Both of them are near glaciers, on different parts of the island. I’m very excited about it, and it should be really interesting.”

Aggie-Led Research Will Inform The 2020 Mars Mission

In addition to examining sediment processes in Iceland, the team will also conduct operational and engineering studies.

“We’ll be using a robotic rover, and it will be instrumented with cameras and sensors that assess the terrain as it’s driving,” Ewing explained. “A big part of this research is to test how autonomous terrain-analysis can be incorporated in scientific work flows. For example, if the rover senses a terrain that’s sandy, that can be useful information if it’s fed back to the science team, which is making the decisions about where to go next or what to test next.”

This research project’s results will influence and inform future Mars rovers’ designs and operations.

“The Mars mission that will launch in 2020 will have a rover and a drone, so we are testing both a rover and a drone in Iceland,” he said. The Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel on the Mars 2020 rover mission, scheduled to launch in July 2020.

“So, what we’re doing will specifically inform operations for Mars 2020.”

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