Canadian prof digs ancient rocks in Scotland so scientists can learn how to handle Mars samples

NASA’s Perseverance rover won’t be back from Mars for around 10 years, but scientists are already preparing for its return— and for the precious space rocks it’s been collecting. 

Mariek Schmidt, an Earth sciences professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., worked alongside five other scientists to collect over 300 kilograms of 90-million-year-old igneous rocks from the Scottish Isle of Rum this summer. 

“We probably collected over 300 kilograms of material that can then be used by engineers and scientists on Earth in order to be prepared for when this samples come back from Mars,” she said. 

Schmidt and other scientists are working with NASA and the European Space Agency on the project.

She said the rocks on the Isle of Rum have a similar composition to the ones on Mars and will help scientists learn how to work with such precious materials. 

“Those space rocks, as you might imagine, they’re going to be extremely valuable,” she said. “When they come back we’re going to want to have procedures in place in order to work with those samples.”

‘We’ve never collected samples from another planet before’

Lydia Hallis, a planetary science associate professor at the University of Glasgow, was part of the excavation on the Isle of Rum.

She said the rocks her team collected are much younger than the Martian rocks, which she said are likely around 3 billion years old. 

But, she said, the rocks are still comparable thanks to Scotland’s weather. 

“Even though the Martian rocks are much older, the weathering rate on Mars is much slower. So younger rocks in Scotland, where it rains a lot, get weathered quicker,” she said. 

Scientists collected over 300 kilograms of 65 million-year-old igneous rocks to run tests on, in preparation for the limited Mars rover samples that will return to earth in a decade. (Submitted by Mariek Schmidt)

Hallis told CBC Hamilton she studied material from the Apollo missions for her PhD, but said she is more excited about material the Mars rover is bringing back. 

“The moon is interesting, but we know there was never life on the moon. We don’t know that about Mars. We know that it’s much more of a varied environment with rain, with lakes, with rivers…” she said. 

Scientists have collected samples from asteroids and the moon before, Hallis said, but “We’ve never collected samples from another planet before.” 

Mars rock samples will be ‘width of a pencil’

The sample size from Mars is much smaller, she said, compared to the samples taken from the moon. 

Schmidt said the rover will return with 20-to-30 samples of rock cores, all 68 centimetres long and about the “width of a pencil.” 

Hallis said the Apollo missions brought around 380 kilograms of rock back to earth. 

“Humans were able to pick up just random rocks from the surface,” she said, and they brought back “as much as you can carry and fit in the spaceship. That’s as much as you can bring back.”

A rugged Scottish coastline.
The Isle of Rum, where Mariek Schmidt and other scientists collected igneous rocks to be used by scientists around the world in preparation for Mars rock samples expected to return to Earth. (Submitted by Mariek Schmidt )

She said the Mars samples are returning from much farther away and are being collected by “robotic instruments and tiny little helicopters.” 

Hallis said she cannot stress how important the Mars samples, and the decades of research they will provide, will be. 

“The samples that come back, they won’t just tell us about how Mars formed. They will tell us about how planets form in our solar system, in other solar systems around other stars,” she said.

“We’ll get to figure out whether we’re alone in the universe.”

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