Meet the Martian meteorite hunters

Close-up false colour image of the meteorite 'Block Island'
False-colour image of the Martian meteorite nicknamed "Block Island." This image was taken with the panoramic camera of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on July 28, 2009. The false colour enhances the contrast of different types of soil and meteorite material visible in the image.
Credit
NASA

A team at the Natural History Museum (NHM), London is paving the way for future rovers to search for meteorites on Mars. The scientists are using the NHM’s extensive meteorite collection to test the spectral instruments destined for the ExoMars rover Rosalind Franklin, and develop tools to identify meteorites on the surface of the red planet. The project is being presented today (23 July) at the virtual National Astronomy Meeting 2021.

The cratered surface of our nearest planetary neighbour has a long and complex history, and searching for rocks amidst more rocks may seem like a futile activity. Despite this, Martian rovers statistically have a significantly higher ‘find per mile’ success rate than dedicated meteorite hunts on Earth: for every kilometre travelled by a Mars rover, approximately one meteorite is found, even though the rovers have not been specifically looking for them up till now.

However, as part of the European Space Agency's upcoming ExoMars mission, the next rover - named Rosalind Franklin, after the chemist best known for her pioneering work on DNA - will drill down into the Martian surface to sample the soil, analyse its composition and search for evidence of past or present life buried underground.

Meteorites are important pieces of evidence that can help us understand this story; once a meteorite lands on a planet, it is subjected to the same atmospheric conditions as the rest of the surface. Chemical and physical weathering can provide information on climate weathering rates and water-rock interactions, meteorite sizes and distribution can help to infer information about the density of the atmosphere, and stony meteorites could be a potential delivery mechanism for organic materials to Mars.

“Meteorites act as a witness plate across geological time,” said Sara Motaghian, the PhD student at the NHM and Imperial College London who is carrying out the work. “Generally, the surfaces of Mars we are exploring are incredibly ancient, meaning there have been billions of years for the surface to accumulate these meteorites and lock in information from across Mars’ past.”

The team are looking in particular at the use of multispectral imaging with the PanCam instrument, hoping to be able to highlight features in images that could be associated with meteorites as the rover moves across the surface. They are also investigating the possibility of using pattern recognition techniques to distinguish features such as Widmanstätten patterns, which can be revealed by extreme weathering.

The launch of the ExoMars rover was originally scheduled for 2020, however was delayed until 2022 due to technical issues and growing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. Once the rover reaches Mars in 2023, the team hope that their work will allow meteorites on the surface to be studied for longer by the Rosalind Franklin rover before it drives on, helping to build a more complete understanding of the Martian surface and its history, if any, of life.

 


Media contacts

Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7802 877 699
nam-press@ras.ac.uk

Dr Morgan Hollis
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7802 877 700
nam-press@ras.ac.uk

Anita Heward
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7756 034 243
nam-press@ras.ac.uk

Vittoria D'Alessio
PR and Media Manager
University of Bath
Tel: +44 (0)1225 383 135
vda26@bath.ac.uk

 


Science contacts

Sara Motaghian
Natural History Museum / Imperial College London
s.motaghian@nhm.ac.uk

 

Images and captions

A hand holding a small meteorite showing a striated pattern on the surface
3D weathered structure, known as a Widmanstätten pattern, on the Richa Meteorite (BM1996, M55 Natural History Museum Collection).
S. Motaghian / Natural History Museum

 

 

A person photographing a small piece of meteorite surrounded by lab equipment
Sara Motaghian photographing the Martian meteorite Tissint (BM.2012, M1 Natural History Museum Collection) and lab set up with the Aberystwyth University PanCam Emulator (AUP3), the Hyperspectral camera Counterpart, and VNIR contact spectrometer.
Natasha Almeida / Natural History Museum

 

Image of the Martian landscape with a large rock in the foreground
Image of "Block Island", an odd-shaped, dark rock on the surface of Mars, which is thought to be a meteorite. This object was imaged with the navigation camera on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on sol 1959 (July 28, 2009).
NASA / JPL-Caltech

 

 

Close-up false colour image of the meteorite 'Block Island'
False-colour image of the Martian meteorite nicknamed "Block Island." This image was taken with the panoramic camera of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on July 28, 2009. The false colour enhances the contrast of different types of soil and meteorite material visible in the image.
NASA

 

 

Magnified image of a meteorite showing veins, nodules and pitted textures
Magnified view of the surface of the rock known as "Block Island", on the surface of Mars. The image was taken by the microscopic imager onboard NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity during the 1,963rd Martian day, or sol, of the rover's mission on Mars (1 August, 2009). The triangular pattern of small ridges seen at the upper right is characteristic of iron-nickel meteorites found on Earth. Block Island has been identified as an iron-nickel meteorite based on this surface texture and analysis of its composition by Opportunity's alpha particle X-ray spectrometer. At about 60 centimetres (2 feet) across, it is the largest meteorite yet found on Mars.
NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell University / USGS

 

 


Notes for editors

About the National Astronomy Meeting

The Royal Astronomical Society National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2021) will take place online from 19 - 23 July 2021. Bringing together around 800 astronomers and space scientists, the conference is the largest annual professional astronomy and space science event in the UK, and sees leading researchers from around the world presenting their latest work.

NAM 2021 incorporates the annual meetings of the Magnetosphere Ionosphere Solar-Terrestrial (MIST) and UK Solar Physics (UKSP) groups. The conference is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the University of Bath.

Follow NAM 2021 on Twitter

 

About the Royal Astronomical Society

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognises outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 4,000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

Follow the RAS on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube

Download the RAS Supermassive podcast

 

About the Science and Technology Facilities Council

The Science and Technology Facilities Council is part of UK Research and Innovation – the UK body which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. STFC funds and supports research in particle and nuclear physics, astronomy, gravitational research and astrophysics, and space science and also operates a network of five national laboratories as well as supporting UK research at a number of international research facilities including CERN, FERMILAB and the ESO telescopes in Chile. STFC is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.

STFC's Astronomy and Space Science programme provides support for a wide range of facilities, research groups and individuals in order to investigate some of the highest priority questions in astrophysics, cosmology and solar system science. STFC's astronomy and space science programme is delivered through grant funding for research activities, and also through support of technical activities at STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre and RAL Space at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. STFC also supports UK astronomy through the international European Southern Observatory.

Follow STFC on Twitter

 

About the University of Bath

The University of Bath is one of the UK's leading universities both in terms of research and our reputation for excellence in teaching, learning and graduate prospects.

The University is rated Gold in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the Government’s assessment of teaching quality in universities, meaning its teaching is of the highest quality in the UK.

In the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 research assessment 87 per cent of our research was defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. From developing fuel efficient cars of the future, to identifying infectious diseases more quickly, or working to improve the lives of female farmers in West Africa, research from Bath is making a difference around the world. Find out more

Well established as a nurturing environment for enterprising minds, Bath is ranked highly in all national league tables. We are ranked 6th in the UK by The Guardian University Guide 2021, and 9th in The Times & Sunday Times Good University Guide 2021 and 10th in the Complete University Guide 2021. Our sports offering was rated as being in the world’s top 10 in the QS World University Rankings by Subject in 2021.

 

Submitted by Morgan Hollis on Fri, 23/07/2021 - 00:11