Brock professor aids in uncovering the possibility of life on Mars


A report, written by a team of Canadian researchers including Mariek Schmidt, the Associate Professor of Earth Sciences at Brock University, suggests there is a large area on Mars that not only contained water at one point, but also conditions that could have allowed for microorganisms to flourish. Schmidt, a Volcanologist and Igneous Petrologist, (is included since 2012) in a group of over 400 scientists worldwide that examine data from Curiosity rover.

Curiosity, the rover vehicle that first launched November 26, 2011, has been on Mars since August 6 2012, initially for a two year mission. However, the mission was extended indefinitely in December 2012 as scientists continued to assess whether the inside of the Gale Crater has ever offered an environment capable of fostering microbial life. Additionally, the role of Curiosity has been instrumental in determining and investigating if water was ever present on Mars.

The findings come from the detection of high concentrations of zinc and germanium within the Gale Crater — a detection that has been found within the data since the rover landed in 2012. This detection was done through the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) that the Curiosity rover was equipped with in order to analyse rocks on Mars and determine what elements they contain.

The APXS, as stated by the Canadian Space Agency website, is a sensor that is about the size of a Rubix cube, can gather data at any point during the day or night and takes about two to three hours to find out what elements a sample is made up of, including trace elements. Additionally, a quick-look analysis can also be completed in ten minutes. Schmidt, who is a participating scientist on the Mars lab mission, is also a member of the APXS instrument team.

The research paper suggests that in order for such high concentrations of zinc and germanium to exist, the source region would have to be hydrothermally altered in some way. Schmidt, in an interview with The Brock News, stated that hot water would have to seep through the rocks in order to concentrate the elements to that extent.

While both elements are often found in low concentrations in meteors that have reached earth’s surface, the concentration within Gale Crater is too high to be coincidental.

If there was some form of a hydrothermal system depositing the elements within the Gale Crater, that means that both fluid and an energy source would have been present, further suggesting that there is a possibility of a habitable environment for microorganisms.

The rover data was also analyzed by scientists from Brock, the University of Guelph, and the University of New Brunswick. The resulting research report being printed in the Journal of Geophysical Research with the lead author being Schmidt’s PhD student from the University of Guelph, Jeff Berger. This is not Schmidt’s first time dealing with data from the Curiosity rover. The Brock professor has been monitoring and analyzing data from the rover since it first started collecting data. She spent a couple months in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California during the beginning of the exploration, creating a geological route for the Curiosity Rover to follow.

The work which spanned the first 90 sols of the Curiosity rover’s mission after it landed — one sol is one Mars day, or approximately 24.5 earth hours — involved the NASA science team to sync up their schedules with Mars time in order to synchronize with the imaging orbiters that would cycle Mars once a day as well as the rover itself.

Additionally, Schmidt has worked on mapping and developed the volcanic history of the North Sister Volcano in the Oregon Cascade Range during the beginning of her research career at Oregon State University. Her earth-based investigations involve the history of volcanic fields in Oregon and New Mexico.

In an interview with The Brock News back in 2013, Schmidt declared that it was possible that humans would possibly go to Mars within her lifetime. As for now, the research team plans on exploring whether or not highly concentrated levels of zinc and germanium can be found as the Curiosity continues its exploration of Mars.



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