WWU Mars Researchers Look Through Curiosity’s Eyes to Analyze the Red Planet's Ancient Geology

by Christina Seeger, WWU Geology graduate student

Researchers at Western Washington University are working with NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars to analyze the rocky surface with technicolor images. 

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover has been exploring the surface of Mars since it landed in the 96 mile-wide Gale Crater in 2012 —here, this crater would stretch from Seattle all the way up to Bellingham.  The rover explores the surface with a host of instruments, collecting chemistry data as well as taking pictures.  The Mastcam instrument — a camera situated on the rover’s mast — takes pictures not only in the visible part of the spectrum, but also in near-infrared wavelengths, producing multispectral images.  The familiar dusty brown and red of Mars’ surface transforms into a bright and colorful scene when viewed through Curiosity’s eyes (see photos). 

The WWU Mars Lab, led by Assistant Professor of Physics/Astrononomy and Geology Melissa Rice, uses these multispectral observations to interpret the geology of Gale Crater, as different colors in the specially processed images reveal information about the rock chemistry, from minerals to iron oxidation.  While a litany of work has been released on these types of observations and their significance, students in the Mars Lab have compiled a comprehensive database of all multispectral images taken by the rover for the first time.  This database allows students to investigate the relationships between the rocks as shown by these images across Curiosity’s entire traverse. 

WWU Geology graduate student Christina Seeger is using the database, along with a software program written by senior Physics student Mason Starr, to perform high-detail analyses of rock types that have previously been defined by visual and chemistry observations collected by other instruments on the rover. 

“This is an exciting time to be working with such a large multispectral dataset,” said Seeger. “The rover is transitioning from a distinctive hematite-bearing ridge to a clay-bearing unit beyond it, and the signatures in these different rock types as seen through the multispectral lens will influence our understanding and interpretation of the geologic history here.” 

This project is ongoing as Curiosity continues to collect multispectral data while exploring the surface of Mars.  The team plans to use their newly developed database to continue to analyze past and future data, as well carry this data structure forward to make similar observations in Jezero Crater, where the Mars2020 rover is slated to land and begin exploring at the beginning of February, 2021.

Interested in learning more about the efforts of WWU's Mars Lab? Follow them on Instagram at @westernmartians.

Editor's note: Graduate and undergraduate students from Regina Barber DeGraaff and Melissa Rice's Science Communication class were tasked this quarter with writing about their own research or about research that interests them. Western Today will be running some of their stories.

Friday, May 3, 2019 - 1:32pm