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.
Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
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Dr Morgan Hollis
Royal Astronomical Society
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Royal Astronomical Society
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University of Bath
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Natural History Museum / Imperial College London
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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.
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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.
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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.
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