Scouting the Territory
Landscape of mining operations in Western Australia. Such areas are rich in banded iron formations, features of interest to Mars scientists, and serve as Mars analogue sites.
Credit: SETI

The initial step for any exploration is the scouting expedition. We have all been taught that in 1803 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out across the North American continent to explore the uncharted West. They thought they might find woolly mammoths, and hoped to find a water route across the vast continent. Instead they found daunting mountain ranges, fascinating native cultures, and water ranging in form from dramatic cascades to stagnant salt pools. Today's astrobiologists, those intrepid modern day explorers investigating the possibilities for life in the universe, are still following the water. One exemplar of this phenomenon is Dr. Adrian Brown, a Carl Sagan Center geologist/astrobiologist and a native Australian, who will lead a September scouting expedition of spectroscopists through the Western Australian desert in search of dry acidic lakes and banded iron deposits. You may ask, "What is the connection between dry lake beds and following the water?" The answer is Mars.

When NASA's "Mars Czar," G. Scott Hubbard, restructured the current robotic NASA Mars Exploration Program, he dubbed the science strategy for the whole program "Follow the Water." Since we know life occurs on earth wherever there is liquid water (for even a part of the year), if you follow the water on other planets, the path may lead you to life on those other worlds. So far, arguably, the strategy has been very successful. The Mars Exploration Rovers are still exploring Mars, and coupled with the latest high resolution images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), are providing an increasingly corroborated story of water on Mars both past and possibly even current. To increase our understanding of the Mars data, we look to analogous places on earth. There we conduct parallel field work similar to current Mars efforts, and by employing all the sophistication humans and laboratory equipment can provide, vastly improve our understanding of the Mars data. Western Australia is a great place to do that.

Dr. Brown is a part of the team of scientists working on data from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) mapping Mars from the MRO spacecraft. A marvelously versatile spectrometer in operation since last November, CRISM has already returned a mountain of intriguing data ? more, thus far, than was returned in nine years of operations by the Mars Global Surveyor, another great spacecraft. CRISM's data are showing a far more complex geology and mineralogy than might have been anticipated and much of it points to water. To increase their understanding of this rich data set, Adrian and his colleagues here on Earth will eventually fly spectrometers 2 to 3 kilometers above targeted areas in Western Australia and explore the same area from the ground with field spectrometers, hand lenses, portable microscopes, computers and various other pieces of equipment to expand their understanding of how the spectral images and data relate to actual ground features. To prepare for the expedition, they have to do a scouting run.

The crucial step in any scientific endeavor is to acquire funding. Dr. Brown joined a team led by Dr. Simon Hook of JPL who successfully proposed the study as a larger interdisciplinary exploration that will include forays into Brazil and Utah. Their funding agency is NASA. Brown's international team will accomplish two field expeditions, one ground scouting trip to pinpoint the most useful target areas, which is to be followed by a second trip next year that will combine flights taking data from the air with further ground research. The interlude between the two expeditions will give them adequate time to study and correlate their data and then compare it to the CRISM data to see what is most useful and how they might improve the approach.

The team arrives in Perth on September 5th, early spring down under, and has until September 23rd to recover from jet lag. Then, with their rented vehicles, they explore multiple sites at 3 field targets. To ensure that all goes smoothly, Adrian is spending a fair chunk of his summer here at the SETI Institute juggling airline schedules, renting the all-wheel-drive vehicles that will carry them safely through the Australian outback, coordinating with mining operations they might be visiting ? much of their target area is heavily involved in Australia's growing mining industry ? finding motels that will accommodate them during their travels, assembling information from drill core libraries, and handling dozens of other details that will allow the team of scientists to concentrate on science once they are on their way.

Like most worthwhile endeavors, science is a far more complex business than might first appear, once you peer deeply into the day-to-day working of any aspect of it. These days, I think Dr. Brown is feeling more like a tour guide than a world-class high resolution spectroscopist, and is called upon to manage a myriad of details in areas that he might never have dreamed had any connection to science. Still, once out in the field, he and his team will certainly learn things that they couldn't have anticipated, and not just about Western Australia. Their efforts have the potential to significantly advance our understanding of the CRISM data and Mars. By following the water ? the traces and signatures it leaves behind and the kind of morphologies that harbor those signatures ? Adrian Brown could acquire a critical piece of the puzzle that drives most astrobiologists. There might no longer be "gold in them thar hills," but what if there's life?