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Curiosity brings Australian space scientists together

Research & Development

Australian space scientists have gathered in Adelaide, South Australia, to share insights and research in to everything and anything not of our planet.

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The 14th Australian Space Research Conference (ASRC – formerly the Australian Space Conference) is being held at the University of South Australia, with a scope that covers atmospheric physics, planetary sciences, astrobiology, operations, policy, industry and more.

It's a vast field with a vast array of topics to cover – and for Graziella Caprarelli, Associate Professor of Space Science at the University of South Australia, it comes with a vast amount of data to sample and interpret.

“As a theoretician, I use numerical values and spectral analysis to infer how the features on the surface of Mars came to be there, what type of processes were involved, not only volcanic but also hydrological,” says Caprarelli.

Her earthbound research in to volcanic activity and hydrothermal circulation comes in handy when analysing the stream of information released by NASA from their latest Curiosity Rover mission to Mars, but the process is not quite that intuitive.

Processes that one might take for granted on Earth – such as plate tectonics, the influence of oceans and other such things – are absent on Mars.

So is the context of a lot of the data she receives. Without visual cues or further information, isolated data points can confuse matters when trying to statistically determine characteristics of the red planet – whether it's the age of a formation or the origin of a lava flow.

“We are only collecting information from a few places and we are studying a whole planet. Context is paramount in Earth and planetary science – but often in planetary science it is unknown.”

Her past research has shown that lava flowed on Mars not only from the large volcanoes Mt Olympus and Mt Elysium, but also from small and subtle fissures on the ground.

Her talk at the ASRC, called Revisiting Mars planetary data sets: New insights, set out to show her work interpreting data on the frequency, size and erosion of impact craters in order to figure out the age of different features in Mars – Isidis Planitia in this case, a plain located inside a giant impact basin on the planet.

Dr Caprarelli was not alone in presenting new insights on Mars. Dr Penny King, who holds a prestigious ARC Future Fellowship at the Australian National University, is one of the few scientists working with the Curiosity rover's Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer, which identifies elements present in rocks. Dr King takes that information and builds up a detailed geological history of Mars.

Her keynote, entitled Informing space science developments through simulating 'volatile' materials and processes on planetary bodies, bridged the gaps between scientists and engineers.

It outlined the challenges collecting, storing and transporting materials – the 'volatiles', or materials that prefer to be in liquid or solid form under low pressure – from Mars to Earth.

The challenge lies in the way these materials change and react based on their environment. A mineral salt formed from vapour on Mars might react entirely differently to the atmosphere on Earth – and there needs to be engineering solutions to tackle those problems.

Amongst the scientists and engineers were also educators, communicators and students. This is a result, says Caprarelli, of Mars – and space – becoming more familiar to us.

“Mars is becoming more familiar, it looks like central Australia in many ways and people can relate to Mars. They can become involved in learning more about the planet,” she said.

The ASRC is taking place from September 29 until October 1 at the Hawke Building on the University of South Australia's City West Campus.

ASRC Program 2014

Mars Society Australia

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