U of C on Mars… not

By Samuel Liaw

The University of Calgary is Mars-bound.

The Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Calgary will help NASA scientists with their Mars exploration. Because of his expertise on the Mars-like Devon Island in Nunavut, U of C’s Dr. Robert Stewart was called on by NASA to assist their NASA Haughton Mars project.

Devon Island resembles the harsh, cold and cratered landscape of the red planet. It is also the place where Dr. Stewart spent the past two summers researching. He surveyed the permafrost layer using field survey equipment.

“We were testing subsurface exploration methods and instruments on Devon Island,” explained Dr. Stewart. “There is a wonderful frozen, rocky meteorite impact crater there, this will help simulate the type of surveys that would be done by robotic rovers or astronauts on Mars. The crater on Devon is about as close to Mars as it gets on Earth.”

Dr. Stewart will lend his world-class expertise in geophysical exploration to help advance future NASA technologies for Mars. It is believed Mars’ surface contains permafrost, which will need similar technology used on Devon Island.

“We’re using two techniques: ground-penetrating radar and high-resolution seismic,” explained Dr. Stewart. “The goal of the imaging is to try to find permafrost, ice and possibly water, as well as the subsurface structure at Devon.”

The technology is based on oil exploration techniques and their respective seismic instruments. These instruments are extremely large. However, for successful Mars exploration, the equipment must be downsized dramatically. To be exact, it needs to be the size of a lawn mower.

“The regular oil-industry sources are large machines as big as bulldozers, with kilometres of cables,” Dr. Stewart explained. “Sending equipment to Mars is extremely costly.”

The assumption of permafrost on Mars is exciting to Dr. Stewart, it indicates water existed in the past, and also the possibility these water reservoirs may still exist. With water, there is a chance humans may one day live there.

“If there is permafrost on Mars then there was likely water. If there was water then there may have been life,” explained Dr. Stewart. “For humanity, that would probably be not only enormously exciting, but a cultural shock like Copernicus’ announcement that the Sun and stars did not revolve around Earth.”

For now, Dr. Stewart wants the U of C’s logo on future Mars exploration machinery.

“We hope that we can build instruments that will be on one of the future Mars rover missions,” said Dr. Stewart. “We are also helping define whether and how astronauts could do geophysical exploration on Mars.”


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