Dec. 21, 2007
UI geoscientist studies Mars-like conditions in South America
What can NASA learn about Mars by studying the geology of Chile?
Apparently, quite a bit -- especially if the researcher is volcanologist and planetary geologist Ingrid Peate, assistant professor of geosciences in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
It also helps if the study is the High Lakes 2007 Science Expedition, sponsored by the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute.
Peate is currently completing the two-month, NASA-supported expedition to gather information in the volcanoes and high lakes region (above 18,000 feet) of the Chilean Altiplano, as well as in the Atacama Desert of Chile. She notes that because the region receives far higher amounts of ultraviolet radiation than typical Earth environments, it is a good simulation of the environment found on Mars by NASA's two Mars Rovers during the past four years.
"These are some of the highest lakes on the planet, and not only are they good simulations of what Mars may have been like at the beginning of its history, during a time when life may have evolved there, but they are also being strongly affected by Earth's current global climate change, and may not exist for much longer," she said. "We need to document them, and the changes they undergo as they disappear, so we can better understand how life survives in, and responds to, extreme environments.
"My research contributes to these goals by examining the history of the volcanoes that these lakes occur in," she said.
Although the Atacama Desert is very different from the high desert of the Andes, its rocky terrain and lack of moisture are features found on Mars.
"We are studying a specific feature found on Mars by the rovers: small spherules on the surface and in the rocks that the mission control scientists have named 'blueberries.' Scientists have proposed several different ways to form these blueberries, and we are looking at similar spherules in the Atacama Desert, in environments that represent the different ways they may have formed on Mars. By understanding how different spherules form on Earth, we can apply that knowledge to Mars and hopefully relate what we are seeing here to what the rovers are finding there," she said.
"One exciting finding is the presence of silicate spherules at Salar Grande, a salt flat located in northern Chile near the Coastal Range. The appearance and distribution of these spherules looks a lot like deposits that were just discovered by the rover Spirit on Mars, and they provide us with a great analogue to study," she said. See http://marsrover.nasa.gov/gallery/press/spirit/20070521a.html.
Peate said that her NASA grant -- the Planetary Spherules Project -- has an educational supplement to support young women in science. She will take several female undergraduate students out to the field with her next year and guide them in research projects based on the data they collect.
"As a professor at the beginning of my career, I am committed to encouraging young women to pursue their interests in science, and hands-on experience is always a great way to learn," she said. "In addition, our team for the Planetary Spherules Project is the perfect opportunity to highlight the accomplishments of successful female researchers, since five of the seven investigators are women. We are planning on having a blog for our field expeditions so people can keep up with our research in the field, and season one is already posted." See http://highlakes.seti.org/2007/PGG/pgg.html.
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500
MEDIA CONTACTS: Ingrid Peate, UI Department of Geosciences, 319-335-1824, Ingridfirstname.lastname@example.org; Gary Galluzzo, University News Services, 319-384-0009, email@example.com