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Western-Led Team Selected by Canadian Space Agency to Study Mars Minerals

Press Release From: Western University
Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2019

In the coming years, new rovers will explore Mars with better scientific instruments, as capable as those that exist in labs here on Earth today. Roberta Flemming from Western University's Department of Earth Sciences and the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration is leading a team of researchers to develop a compact instrument that could be deployed to analyze mineral and rock structures in place on the red planet's surface, wherever they are found. The concept study is funded by the Canadian Space Agency

On Earth, X-Ray Diffraction (XRD) is the primary technique to determine the mineralogy of rocks and other natural materials. The minerals in a rock record its history -- from how it crystallized, to how it has changed from subsequent heat, fluids, or shock. Several rover-based instruments measure chemical information from the rocks, but chemical composition alone does not provide a complete picture of the history of the rocks. Although XRD is currently being used on Mars with the CheMin instrument on NASA's Curiosity rover, the CheMin technique crushes the rock to a powder in the process, consuming power and rover time and also destroying critical information about the relationship between the minerals in the rock. 

The need for better rover-based mineralogical data for planetary research prompted Flemming to propose the development of a concept for a miniaturized in situ XRD (ISXRD) for use on the Martian surface. As a part of this concept study, Flemming and her team from Western, Brock University, and the University of Guelph universities, along with Canadian companies PROTO and MDA, a Maxar Technologies company, are defining science goals and instrument geometries for ISXRD to address: Mars evolution, geological processes, impact history, climate (e.g., the history of water on Mars), and habitability. 

The research team will be using Martian analog rocks, minerals common on the Martian surface, and Martian meteorites to compare current results from Flemming's premier micro XRD lab at Western with results using various rover-candidate miniaturized X-ray components and geometries tested by PROTO Manufacturing in Windsor. Together these researchers are laying the foundation for a far more capable X-ray diffraction instrument to be used in future Mars exploration -- or anywhere else a remotely-operated robotic rover might be deployed, including remote regions of Earth for environmental science or resource prospecting.

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