Mount Holyoke Scientist Supplying Data on Minerals to NASA's Mars Exploration Project

Archive by Erudera News Jan 06, 2004

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SOUTH HADLEY, Mass., Jan. 6 (AScribe Newswire) — A Mount Holyoke College scientist and her student assistants are gathering data on about 60 minerals that might be found on the surface of Mars, enabling NASA to make sense of information gathered by the Beagle 2 and Mars Exploration Rover .

Darby Dyar, associate professor of geology and astronomy, is one of the world’s foremost experts in analyzing the iron content of rocks and minerals using Mossbauer spectroscopy. She operates the only lab at an undergraduate college in the country that can measure spectra at Mars’ surface conditions. 

“Although the rovers’ eye images from Mars are dazzling, the chemical analyses are the true ‘gold mine’ to scientists, because we hope they will tell us if there was water on Mars,” says Dyar. “Understanding the chemistry and mineralogy of the rocks on Mars will allow us to decode the geologic history of Mars, and evaluate the possibility that life could have existed there. Also, if we find water (or water ice), then the door will be opened for human exploration of Mars in the next decades.”

Each rover carries a piece of equipment called a Mossbauer spectrometer that can identify minerals by bombarding them with gamma rays. Scientists know how to read spectrometer results taken at normal Earth temperatures, but not at the -208 degrees F temperatures found on Mars. Dyar’s project, funded by a $150,000 grant from NASA’s Mars Fundamental Research Program, will give scientists the data they need to match low temperature spectra of unknown minerals on Mars to minerals we know here on Earth. Her results and more information are posted at www.mtholyoke.edu/go/mars/.

Dyar is currently studying martian mineralogy by using martian meteorites, and she continues work on moon rock samples begun with her doctoral dissertation in geochemistry at MIT.

Dyar is available for interviews on the Mars mission. Among the issues she  can address are:

— relevance of MER chemical results to geology and the issue of water

— explanations of Beagle 2 and MER instrumentation

— Mars geology

— Mars mineralogy

— evidence for water on Mars

— landing site criteria for Mars missions

— future missions to Mars

— interpretation of MER analytical results

— history of Mars exploration

— Mars meteorites and what they tell us

— lunar geology

— origin of the planets

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