Research Report 2007

Field study on the Red Planet

Like most graduate students, Cassandra Marion is doing field studies. Unlike most students her research isn't on Earth; she's going to Mars. Well, not really Mars but rather the Utah desert which scientists say is similar to the environment found on Mars. Ms. Marion has been chosen to be part of Expedition Gamma, a training and research mission to the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah. MDRS is one of a series of stations offering researchers the opportunity to carry out their work in a remote, Mars-like environment, to better understand how people will be able to live and work effectively on the Red Planet.

Expedition Gamma exposes researchers to the facilities and environment typically available in a Mars analog setting, to cross-train participants in several exploration-related disciplines outside of their particular specialization, and to certify new recruits for participation in future large-scale research expeditions.

Conducting her studies in geochemistry and planetary science, Ms. Marion will be the geologist on crew for the mission. Her time on Expedition Gamma will involve looking at evaporite deposits similar to those on Meridiani Planum, Mars. Evaporites are sediments or sedimentary rocks that are formed by the evaporation of saline water; this can be sea water or ion rich surface water. The most common evaporites are halides, sulfides and nitrates. The common minerals are halite (from halide) and gypsum (from sulfides).

Cassandra Marion sitting at sophisticated looking computer

Cassandra Marion is doing field studies in the Utah desert. The setting is similar to the surface of Mars, and the studies are designed to better understand how people will be able to live and work effectively on the Red Planet. (Photo by Chris Hammond)

"I will be using small-scale mapping, stratigraphic analysis and sampling of various evaporite deposits, primarily gypsum and halite, with the aid of a topographic map, a Garmin handheld GPS unit and MapSource software," said Ms. Marion. "I will also complete an analysis and imaging of the evaporites using a scanning electron microscope (SEM), a powerful microscope that allows us to zoom into a thin section (slice of the rock or mineral) to a um-scale, (1 um = one millionth of a metre).

"Now at this zoom I'll be able to see if there are tiny bubbles of fluid (water) which are called fluid inclusions. Tiny bacteria can also get trapped in the mineral when it forms, this is what I mean by microbes, and biomolecules could be things like amino acids or hydrocarbons... key 'life' molecules in humans and animals."

A native of Ontario, Ms. Marion, completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Ottawa in geology, her undergraduate thesis focused on siliciclastic sedimentology: a slide and channel complex in a deep marine turbidite system in the Caribou Mountains, B.C.

She is currently pursuing graduate studies at Memorial, focusing on the age, origin, impactite classification and stratigraphy of the Mistastin Lake Impact Crater, Labrador.

Several of the Expedition Gamma research projects will be completed investigating issues of biology, operations and human factors. Expedition Gamma will be the third in a series of training missions, building on the success of 2004's Expedition Alpha and 2006's Expedition Beta to MDRS and previous large-scale research missions such as 2003's Expedition One to MDRS and 2004's Expedition Two to Arkaroola, Australia. Successful participants of the training series will have the opportunity to contribute to future large-scale expeditions being planned for the Canadian Arctic, Iceland and Chile's Atacama Desert, among other locations.

The expedition will take place in January 2007 and will last about two weeks. For more information on the Gamma Expedition, visit http://chapters.marssociety.org/canada/expedition-mars.org/ExpeditionGamma.