University of Winnipeg researchers help explore Mars

University of Winnipeg researchers want to see how various minerals and rocks might react in a Mars environment to make them easier to identify if found on Mars.

In a small room located at the downtown campus of the University of Winnipeg, a canister about the size of half a soup can contains hundreds of tiny pebbles. And while these pebbles come from Earth, the canister’s interior replicates the conditions those pebbles would experience if they were on Mars. 

This and several other small lab rooms make up the Centre for Terrestrial and Planetary Exploration (C-TAPE), where director Dr. Ed Cloutis, a geology professor at the school, oversees research work done by UWinnipeg students. 

Dr. Ed Cloutis uses a spectrometer to look at a sample in the University of Winnipeg’s Centre for Terrestrial and Planetary Exploration. PHOTO BY Rob Swystun

The device with the pebbles is known as a vacuum chamber.

“We can simulate the conditions on the moon or on Mars. Mostly what we do is we expose geological samples to Mars conditions,” Cloutis explained during a recent tour of the facility.

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Researchers want to see how various minerals and rocks might react in a Mars environment to make them easier to identify if found on Mars.

“The surface conditions on Mars are much different than they are on the earth,” Cloutis said. “We know that a lot of rocks that might be present on Mars would change when they are exposed to these low-pressure conditions. So, we put different samples that we think might be present on Mars – Earth samples – and see how they react when they are exposed to the surface of Mars.”

The researchers put the samples in a vacuum chamber for a set amount of time – usually a few months – and then look at them with unique cameras to see how they change and whether they are stable or unstable.

Rather than just looking at them with the naked eye, they use spectroscopy to see how the samples have changed. Spectroscopy studies how objects react with light and other forms of radiation.

For instance, minerals in a rock can be identified by how they reflect light, making a rock look metallic, glassy, pearly, or dull. This property is known as lustre.

Minerals also have a refractive index, measuring how much light is bent as it passes through the mineral. This property helps identify a mineral by measuring the angle at which light refracts.

But on Mars, identification methods, like lustre and refractive index, may present differently for some minerals than on Earth.

A vacuum chamber that is configured to the same atmospheric conditions on Mars in the University of Winnipeg’s Centre for Terrestrial and Planetary Exploration holds samples of pebbles to see how they may change in Mars conditions. PHOTO BY Rob Swystun

While all the samples Cloutis currently works with have originated on Earth, UWinnipeg will receive specimens of the asteroid Bennu from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission in late September.

When the samples come back from the asteroid, Cloutis and his team will put them in these spectrometers and measure their spectral properties in a nitrogen environment, protecting them from exposure to Earth’s atmosphere.

“We want to work with pristine samples,” explained Cloutis. 

Knowing how minerals might look different in Martian environments is key to many projects Cloutis is involved in, including the two currently operational NASA rovers on Mars: Curiosity and Perseverance.

“I’m involved with analyzing the data that comes back from them, and one of the big focuses of that mission is to collect samples for eventual return to Earth,” Cloutis said. “So, we spend a lot of time discussing where the rover should go and where it should drill for samples. We want to collect the best samples to address many different science questions like looking for signs of life, collecting rocks that would allow us to date how old, say, Jezero Crater is, and how geologically diverse a certain region is. So, there are a lot of science questions we want to address.”

Jezero Crater on Mars was the chosen landing spot for Perseverance, which is roughly the size of a car. 


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Cloutis isn’t the only person connected to UWinnipeg that helps with the Mars Perseverance mission. 

Former student Uriah Wolf just started a job at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, where she is helping control Perseverance’s supercam, the “face” of the rover. 

Wolf is uniquely skilled at controlling the rover’s supercam because she did that while at UWinnipeg as a Science Payload Uplink Lead.

Because Cloutis is a collaborating scientist on the Perseverance mission, he got his students to work with the rover. Cloutis offered Wolf a chance to do the uplink work, and she was adept at it. She eventually got the job at Los Alamos Lab because of her work at UWinnipeg. 

“My job is, if we’re driving around on Mars if we see something that looks interesting and they decide we want to shoot it with the laser, I have to basically line up the sights, make sure we are shooting the laser exactly where they want to shoot the laser,” Wolf said from her office in Los Alamos. 

The rover’s SuperCam can fire a laser to study rock targets smaller than a pencil point from more than seven metres away.

“So, I’m responsible for making sure we’re lining up the face of the rover exactly where we want to be and then shooting that laser at an interesting rock.”

She does the uplink work about 50 percent of the time and spends the rest of her week on other projects, like calibrating the rover instruments. 

“I’ll be making sure that we can accurately interpret our spectra and make accurate detections,” she added.

While Wolf didn’t start school with the dream of working in the aerospace industry (her initial field of study was medicinal chemistry), the COVID-19 pandemic threw a proverbial wrench into her initial plans and created a situation where she had to make a quick decision about her future studies. C-TAPE’s extensive work with spectroscopy drew her to planetary research.

Cubesats and Canadian rovers

Because of his expertise in planetary research, Cloutis is a scientific partner on various space missions. 

For example, he was a science consultant on the ill-fated MoonNet mission, a rover built by the United Arab Emirates’ Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre. The rover, launched into space on a SpaceX rocket earlier this year and was going to be delivered to the lunar surface by Japanese company iSpace in May. Unfortunately, the rover was lost during a failed landing attempt.

Canadian lunar rover

While that mission led to disappointment, Cloutis is also involved with the upcoming Canadian Space Agency (CSA) lunar rover project tentatively set to launch in 2026. The Canadian rover, which will be about the size of a microwave, will land near the moon’s south pole to look for water ice in craters, like what India’s recently landed Pragyaan moon rover is doing as part of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s current Chandrayan-3 lunar mission.

Cloutis’ role with the Canadian lunar rover mission is deputy principal investigator.

“We will be looking at the images and giving suggestions on where the rover should go and what it should do,” he explained. “One of the big things we want to do is see if there is ice in some of these shadowed regions in the south and around the moon’s south pole. A lot of upcoming missions are focussed on that.”

Iris CubeSat

Another project that celebrated a significant milestone that Cloutis and several of his students are involved in is the Canadian CubeSat Project, in which UWinnipeg partnered with the University of Manitoba (U of M).

An initiative of the CSA, the CubeSat Project, allowed universities nationwide to apply for funding to build a miniature satellite known as a CubeSat, which would eject into orbit from the International Space Station (ISS).

The UWinnipeg and U of M CubeSat ejected from the ISS on July 6.

Onboard the CubeSat, named “Iris,” are samples of rocks and minerals. Much like the samples in the vacuum chambers in the C-TAPE lab, Cloutis wants to know how the samples aboard Iris change when they are exposed to radiation while in orbit. 

While UWinnipeg provided the payload for Iris (the payload being what a satellite carries on it, often scientific experiments, or communication equipment) and will help analyze the data, much of the engineering of the CubeSat was done on the south side of Winnipeg by the U of M.

In our next installment exploring space research and development in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, we will examine what the U of M is doing and its partnership with Winnipeg’s Magellan Aerospace.

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