Mars Desert Research Station

In a sentence: "In the academic year 2017-18 I led a 'sample return' analogue mission in collaboration with The Mars Society and several Oxford undergraduates."

A side project I'm just concluding now is with The Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in Utah: an analogue base where ‘astronauts’ simulate life on the Red Planet. Myself and a team of five undergraduates under my supervision designed a project that was later carried out at the MDRS by a fellow PhD student on Expedition 184. 

 Mars crumbles under the merciless might of our geologists.

Mars crumbles under the merciless might of our geologists.

 Pretty stars, but I bet they're better on Mars...

Pretty stars, but I bet they're better on Mars...

 Edit the sky to blue, and Hanksville, Utah, looks shockingly Marslike.

Edit the sky to blue, and Hanksville, Utah, looks shockingly Marslike.

The Matryoshka PROJECT

Our project aims to test the validity of solely-orbital-based geologic inferences in the absence of ground-based data, simulating the selection of scientific targets in planetary missions. We first characterise the MDRS region from orbit, then ground-truth our inferences in the field, first using drones, then with a person. This progressive down-scaling our observations is analogous to a Russian “Matryoshka” doll, hence the name!

The inspiration for this project came from the ExoMars landing site selection meeting I attended in 2015, where two sites of startling scientific interest were dismissed because they lacked spectroscopic coverage. By making ‘predictions’ from orbit and ground-truthing them in person, this lack of faith in solely-geomorphological interpretation might be challenged.


(QUITE A FEW) LITTLE PIECES OF MARS

In Spring 2018 we received a very heavy box of Utah samples — or ‘Mars’ rocks! Half our team made thin sections for microscope and electron microscope analysis from the most competent rocks, while the other half used X-Ray Diffractometry to probe the samples' dominant mineralogy. In February, we presented our work so far at a seminar alongside robotics expert Brian Yeomans, physics professor Colin Wilson, and human spaceflight official Simon Evetts. 

I'm fortunate to have the best teammates behind me: Akash (DPhil Engineering), Emily (fourth year), and Hayley, Alfie, Kristiina, and Rebecca (second years) who propel this project onwards with sheer excitement alone. Many thanks also the Burdett-Coutts Fund, sourced by generous alumni of the Department of Earth Sciences, for supporting our mission.