Rusty Arctic rocks could help us understand water on Mars (photos)

two women on a rocky outcrop. one squats in front with a laptop while the second, in behind, uses an instrument against a rusty slope. in the background are mountains and blue sky with clouds
Scientists Éloïse Brassard (front) and Myriam Lemelin collecting samples during a simulated Mars expedition in Canada in July 2023. Brassard is a masters student in applied geomatics and remote sensing at Université de Sherbrooke in Quebec, while Lemelin is an assistant professor at the same institution who is a part of several lunar mission teams. (Image credit: Cassandra Marion/Twitter)

Researchers are on a hunt for Mars-like rocks high in Canada's Arctic.

The T-MARS project (also known as Terrestrial Mineral Analysis by Remote Sensing) is an expedition testing space living on Axel Heiberg, in the Arctic Ocean. Like ancient Mars, the remote island in traditional Inuit territory is a cold spot that still allows for liquid water at times of the year. 

The running water and cold conditions makes the location perfect for T-MARS, a Canadian Space Agency-funded effort running until 2024. Numerous Canadian researchers are on site, including Arctic veteran and planetary scientist Cassandra Marion. "Once we get to the outcrop, we're collecting a bunch of samples. So on the way back, you're heavier, because you got a bunch of rocks on your back," Marion joked with by telephone, from Axel Heiberg.  

Marion studies craters in remote areas and is also the science advisor at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Canada. If you want to hear from Marion personally, the museum is hosting Zoom calls with her on Wednesday, July 18 (in English) and Thursday, July 19 (in French), subject to weather. You can register here.

Related: Water on Mars: Exploration and evidence

Marion and her colleagues are on the hunt to understand gossans, which are highly eroded ore deposits that have analogies to Mars rocks.

"Gossans contain abundant alteration minerals, which require the presence of water during their formation," the T-MARS project website states. Similar minerals on Mars suggest "the presence of ancient hydrothermal systems on this planet, since the formation of these minerals requires water," the statement adds.

Using tools and science investigations, the team aims to better understand Martian geological processes, to find new techniques to search for signs of life and to experiment with space technologies (such as satellites) to assist with the ground expedition. 

Related: Mars missions: A brief history

"It's really a remote sensing-based project," Marion said of T-MARS, which uses both satellite data from Worldview and on-site data from a small drone Marion pilots herself. 

"Some of the students, their research is focused on identifying these deposits from the satellite, and then finding them on site. They're sampling, they're mapping them and they're evaluating if their interpretations from the satellite data are accurate." 

One student is also test-driving a new processing technique to make the gossans stand out in the data, Marion noted. And T-MARS is not the only investigation examining gossans on Earth.

For example, scientists with the NASA Curiosity Mars rover examined biosignatures from a location known as Iron Mountain, near Los Angeles, "to assist with interpretation of mineral texture on Mars," a United States Geological Survey page about that study states.

Researchers with the T-MARS expedition set up their gear for the July 2023 excursion, which is the second and final in the campaign series. (Image credit: Cassandra Marion/Twitter)

This expedition is Marion's sixth to the high Arctic and 13th overall; she has also been to locations such as the Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah that also does Red Planet-like work and research.

Going on this expedition requires months of training, Marion pointed out. All participants have remote first aid certification as the "bare minimum," while a few also have a firearm possession and acquisition license as a last-resort form of protection against wildlife. Training in riding helicopters, situational awareness and remote environments and wildlife protocols is also a necessity so that everyone knows how to behave and think before arriving.

Other requirements include physical fitness, as the expedition based near the McGill Arctic Research Station (yes, the McGill University facility's acronym stands for MARS) requires hours of hiking in rugged terrain, and carrying equipment. Just one of the instruments, a reflective spectrometer, has a mass of 40 pounds (18 kilograms). "The whole instrument has its own backpack, and it's the heaviest backpack," Marion said.

A Twin Otter aircraft (far in the background) at the T-MARS research site in the Canadian high Arctic in July 2023. (Image credit: Cassandra Marion/Twitter)

The techniques scientists are using on-site are not only useful for Mars, but also the moon. That's highly relevant given Canada is highly involved in moon exploration, alongside NASA, under the American-led Artemis Program aiming to land astronauts on the moon in 2025 or 2026 along with a suite of scientific payloads.

For example: Artemis 2 will send Orion the moon in November 2024 with NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover and Christina Koch, along with Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jeremy Hansen. A Canadian micro-rover, a utility vehicle and experiments funded by the CSA's Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program are also bound for the surface, among many other activities.

"The students that we're bringing up here, this is developing highly qualified people that you can use to work on those missions," Marion said. "These expeditions are really training the generation that is going to be interpreting all of the data coming back from the moon, which is going to be huge for both the rover and human missions."

Additionally, the head of science on the T-MARS mission is Myriam Lemelin, an assistant professor at the Université de Sherbrooke in Quebec. Lemelin is highly experienced in space missions and is part of three moon efforts alone: The lunar micro-rover, the NASA-led Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) water-hunting rover mission, and the lander-rover mission Lunar Vertex. All three are scheduled to touch down on the moon later in the 2020s.

The researchers will be on site until July 22, meaning they will also celebrate there the 54th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon-landing mission on July 20. Data analysis and publications will also close out the rest of the project timeline in 2024.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: