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NASA-funded study of Iceland’s terrain may influence Mars mission

Image: College of Geosciences

If you were looking for a place on Earth that is similar to the environment found on Mars, where would you go?

One scientifically correct answer is Iceland, specifically near Thingvellir and Askja. And thanks to NASA, that’s where Ryan Ewing, associate professor, Department of Geology and Geophysics, will conduct research next summer.

Ewing is the lead principal investigator of a project recently funded by a $1.1 million grant from NASA’s Planetary Science and Technology Through Analog Research program.

“In this program, scientists go to environments on Earth that are similar to environments on other worlds, and conduct scientific research, but we also do it in a way that mimics how that research might be approached on another world,” Ewing said. “So, we’re doing a science project but also an operational, engineering project.”

Ewing and a team of researchers will travel to two sites in Iceland that are similar to environments on Mars because the terrain includes: an abundance of igneous, basaltic rock and sediment; glaciers; fluvial systems similar to Martian ancient river systems; and wind-blown material, similar to the sand dunes and ripples that cover Mars today. The project officially begins in January 2019, and the team will conduct research in Iceland in the summer of 2019 and summer of 2020.

“Our science question is, how does the sediment in these basaltic environments chemically and physically evolve?” he said. “How are sediments chemically altered from their source rock from weathering in a cold climate? How do sediments change through physical abrasion and sorting across different environments, whether it’s in a river, or in a windblown system?”

In addition, the team will conduct operational and engineering studies.

“We’ll be using a robotic rover, and it will be instrumented with cameras and sensors that assess the terrain as it’s driving,” Ewing explained. “A big part of this research is to test how autonomous terrain-analysis can be incorporated in scientific work flows. For example, if the rover senses a terrain that’s sandy, that can be useful information if it’s fed back to the science team, which is making the decisions about where to go next or what to test next.”

The results could influence and inform future Mars rovers’ designs and operations.