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.
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.