No place like home? Geologist researches Mars, compares to Earth

Mark Salvatore

Assistant Professor of Geology Mark Salvatore shows the volcanic basalt rock he discovered in Antarctica’s TransAtlantic Mountains. He said Mars is made of rocks like this one.

Something out of this world is on Mark Salvatore’s bookshelf.

In a small clear container from NASA, a Mars rock sits inside.

Salvatore, assistant professor of geology, said it was a gift he received from a research adviser while working for NASA.

And something of this world—on the same shelf—helps explain how the small rust-colored pebble may have formed. It’s a larger rock, a basaltic volcanic rock, which is smooth in texture with divided gray and brown sides. Salvatore discovered it in Antarctica, but said there are rocks strewn about Mars that look just like it.

Salvatore has studied Mars for more than a decade and is learning more about the planet’s geology by exploring Antarctica’s remote stretch of mountains known as the Transantarctic Mountains.

“Much of the Martian surface is made of this type of volcanic rock. And looking at its angular shape and unique color, these Martian rocks have been wind blasted in a similar fashion to this Antarctic rock,” said Salvatore, pulling up images of Mars’ surface on his computer to show the similarities of his Antarctic find.

“These basaltic rocks can tell us about the latest component of Mars’ climate history. We’re trying to understand how the Martian surface and atmosphere interact with each other through our understanding of how the Earth’s surface and atmosphere interact with each other. We are studying how the cold, dry, and stable Antarctic climate, which is uniquely similar to that observed on Mars, has an influence on the chemistry of rock surfaces after millions of years of exposure.”

The primary goal of Salvatore’s research is to understand the surface of Mars in its present state and why and how it looks the way it does.

Salvatore said it’s important to learn more about the planets, and in particular Mars, because it may give us insight on planetary evolution and put life in a broader cosmic perspective.

“Each of the terrestrial planets evolved in a different way, but they all started with essentially the same components,” he said. “It’s important to learn how those evolutions took place and in which evolutionary path, and what would happen if they stopped evolving. For example, current Mars might be what the Earth will look like a few billion years from now.”

Having made several trips to Antarctica, Salvatore said he’s hoping to take another trip to Antarctica soon. And the goal is to take students with him.

“I had many opportunities when I was a student and I want to offer that to my students, as well,” said Salvatore, who became interested in Mars after an undergraduate internship at the Smithsonian’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies. “I have several proposals submitted that would grant us access to Antarctica during the winter of 2016-2017. We’d spend a lot of time in the field analyzing the natural Antarctic surfaces, and also returning samples to the lab for additional analysis.”

He said hands-on experience is essential for student learning. And he’s looking forward to getting young researchers involved in Martian research at a time when exciting information is coming forward.

“The recent chemical evidence of flowing water on Mars is really the culmination of 50 years of Martian research. From the initial missions sent there in the 1960s and 1970s until now,” he said. “And I guarantee you that we’ll hear more soon. This is just another step in the learning process. It really is an exciting time.”

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