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Purdue Study Uses Mineralogy To Determine Previous Climate On Mars

Red sand on Mars' surface

Researchers looked at images of rocks on Mars’ surface to analyze how they were created. (Photo: NASA)

Researchers at Purdue University are analyzing rocks and minerals to determine what Mars’ climate was like in the past. And they say the planet could have had areas capable of supporting life.

The team used an imaging tool from NASA called the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, or CRISM, to take three-dimensional photos of rocks on Mars’ surface. From there, the researchers could analyze the geological samples.

Lead researcher and Purdue graduate student Sheridan Ackiss says each photograph is like a fingerprint. She says once the minerals in the rock are identified, they can figure out the environment the rock was formed in.

“Basically if we find these certain minerals, then it had to be this one thing,” Ackiss says. “And then possibly, we can relate that back to climate.”

Ackiss says the rocks they examined were consistent with some mineral samples on Earth – specifically, the type of rock that forms when volcanoes erupt underneath thick sheets of ice.

She says knowing there was ice on the planet’s surface creates a more accurate model of Mars’ past climate. And she says that helps to determine whether the planet could have supported life.

“Volcanoes that are active underneath ice sheets are actually this perfectly beautiful location for little microbes,” Ackiss says.

Ackiss says the real push behind the study was to find locations that were habitable, like the volcanic sites.

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