People can’t get enough Mars these days. While the fictional tale of one man’s survival on the Red Planet (“The Martian,” starring Matt Damon) did well at the box office late last year, factual information about our neighbor in the solar system is being transmitted daily by NASA’s robotic rovers in the form of images and raw instrument readings.
Planetary scientist Shoshe Cole, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Ithaca College, recently made national and international headlines with her research. She analyzed information collected by the Spirit rover on an assortment of Martian rocks that show signs of deterioration caused by an acidic fog produced by volcanic eruptions.
It might sound like a phenomena out of a sci-fi horror movie, but the same type of “vog” has also been detected on Hawaii from the Kilauea volcano.
Cole said research like hers reveals clues about the evolution of Mars and other planets, including our own Earth. “To learn how a terrestrial body forms, Mars is much simpler to study — there are no plate tectonics, there is no life, and there are some very old rocks on Mars that are accessible [right from the surface],” she said.
When the Martian vog drifted across the surface of a certain rock type known as Watchtower Class, which appear to be part of the Martian bedrock, it reacted with the iron in the rocks and dissolved some minerals, which formed a gel. The water within that gel then evaporated, leaving behind a binding agent that created unusual agglomerations—bumps—on the rocks observed by Spirit.
Cole used data collected in 2003 in the Gusev Crater, located near the equator of Mars, in her research. However, the forces that altered the rocks occurred 3 to 4 billion years ago.
She presented her findings at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in November. Her research was picked up by a score of media outlets including Phys.org and Space.com in the U.S, the Daily Mail in the UK, Radio Sputnik and RT News in Russia, and DNA India.
As for whether our fixation on the Red Planet will lead to colonization, Cole said it’s unlikely to happen any time soon.
“We are a long way off from putting humans on Mars, which is very inhospitable. It will cost tens of billions of dollars and it will require space travelers to deal with the psychological stresses of a six- to 10-month trip in confined quarters,” she said.