Secrets of Mars May Be Uncovered by New Technology

A team of researchers from Canada’s University of Western Ontario may have found a way to look further back in history, potentially discovering the secrets of evolution, climate and even habitability of Mars.

Sponsored by the Canadian Space Agency and led by professor Roberta Flemming, researchers are developing an instrument that could be deployed on Martian rovers in order to study the mineral and rock structures of the planet.  

"We are looking at the record of the planet. Minerals tell us the story of the planet's geological history," said Flemming. "This project could give us a deeper, richer data set to understand that history."

The most common technique for determining the composition of rocks and other materials on Earth is X-Ray Diffraction, XRD. It allows the identification of crystalline materials and can provide information on unit cell dimensions.

Currently, the XRD is in use on NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has been exploring the surface of the red planet since 2012. One problem with XRD is that it requires the rock to be finely ground and homogenized before it determines the average bulk composition. In this time-consuming process, it destroys information about the interaction of the minerals and the rock.

Flemming developed a better version of the XRD 10 years ago, proposing a design for a miniaturized in situ XRD (ISXRD). Such an instrument could potentially analyze rocks without destroying them.  

She explained that several rover-based instruments are used for studying the rock composition, but the chemical composition alone does not provide the big picture. It is the minerals in the rock that hold the information about the planet’s history, and therefore better, cleaner data is needed to study its origins.

Her proposed instrument could provide the deepest data set to date. The team has recently received an award for Space Exploration Concept Studies for Planetary Instrument.

In a 1.5-year-long study, Flemming and team will use Martian meteorites, as well as Earth rocks with minerals that are commonly found on Mars to serve as the Martian analogues. They will test various miniaturized X-Ray diffraction instrument components.

Such an instrument is essential for Mars exploration – or anywhere robotic rovers are deployed, including even the remote Earth regions, explained Flemming, who hopes that the advances made by her study will be applied to future rover missions.

Photo credit: NASA