CMU Geologist Collaborates with National Leaders on Mars Research

CMU Geologist Collaborates with National Leaders on Mars Research
June 16, 2010/CMU Media Channel

By: Tracy Burton

Scientific samples from Mars may soon be brought back to Earth for study, raising concerns over potential detrimental effects on the environment. This is why Central Michigan University geology professor Kathy Benison and a group of leading experts from around the country have collaborated on “MARS: Sample Return Missions” — a book about how to manage samples obtained from space while protecting Earth from potential threats.

The collective effort was a major part of Benison’s work while serving on the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council committee – an appointment she began in 2008. The group was charged with coordinating their research and expertise from a broad range of areas including geology, meteoritics, microbiology, health management and engineering.

“The issues presented in this book are important to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because samples of environmental media from outer space, including Mars, may include living entities, be radioactive or have other contamination of concern,” said Neil Stiber of the EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor.

With future space missions currently being planned to return samples from Mars to Earth, the committee’s book replaces a 1997 edition for NASA, the European Space Agency and U.S. Congress.

“The big challenge for the committee, and its job, was to figure out if and when we bring samples of rocks and sediments back to Earth, how we would make sure that we are not contaminating the Earth with life or organic compounds,” said Benison.

Benison explained that in the past several years, data from Mars suggests the possibility that it once hosted life. Benison, a long-time researcher on extremely acid and saline environments in Australia and Chile, said these environments share similarities with those on Mars.

“There are several satellites orbiting Mars that are constantly sending back both chemical data and digital images,” Benison said. “The more data we get, the more similar it seems to these systems I’ve been studying on Earth. That’s pretty exciting.”

Benison believes Mars research is vital to understanding where we live and she remains committed to exploring the connections between Mars and Earth.

“Naturally, we want to understand what may happen to Earth in the future, since it’s our home,” Benison said. “We can look to other planets that are somewhat similar to Earth like Mars and ask, ‘what changes have they gone through in the past and how has the climate, water and landscapes changed on Mars?’”

Understanding the history of another planet close to Earth may provide clues about what changes are in store for our planet, Benison said.

“As humans, we have this real interest in understanding how life evolved and where it evolved and how it is specific to Earth,” she said. “If we can find more information about whether it existed on Mars, then it gives us more clues and information about the origin of life.