Matthew Willig
Advisor: Selby Cull-Hearth

This research aims to map morphologies and textures of hydrated deposits in the Valles Marineris, a Martian canyon system spanning roughly the length of the continental United States. We will be analyzing data from the High-Resolution Image Science Experiment (HiRISE) and Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM). CRISM was launched in 2005, designed to search for minerals indicative of the presence of water. Several other remote sensing instruments similar to CRISM orbit Mars as well. Many other research groups have already analyzed spectral data from these instruments and tentatively determined the composition of surface features across the planet. This research will be using a type of remote sensing software called ENVI to synthesize these analyses such that stratigraphic columns of regions within the Valles Marineris canyon system can be generated, a large step forward in the efforts to establish a geologic history of the planet.

A major complication of research dealing with this imaging spectroscopy is presence of “masking minerals” such as ferrihydrite. These minerals, even in small abundances, effectively prevent CRISM from recording the spectral signatures of surrounding mineral deposits. As a result, inferring past environments from a deposit containing masking mineral becomes far more complicated. To address this problem, a second component of this mapping project is synthesizing minerals that are known to mask other spectral signatures and mixing them with other hydrated Martian minerals to determine how strongly these certain minerals mask others. This research hopes to establish definite masking relationships between minerals that can subsequently be used to correct interpretations from spectral data gathered. This process will occur in the geochemistry lab and is intended to facilitate more accurate predictions of relative amounts of minerals in Martian deposits, and subsequently be able to more accurately infer ancient and current presences of water on the planet.

Martian mineralogists largely seek to infer past climates and surface conditions of the planet and more specifically, where water was present and how much was there. Such insights enable predictions regarding whether life has ever and could ever exist on Mars. These questions are particularly important as interest in Mars’ ability to sustain human life grows.