Professor Develops System to Study Martian Geology

By Mike Thee

With scientists continuing to search for evidence that life once existed on Mars, a project undertaken by an SU professor is promising to help unlock the mystery.

Christopher Stipe, assistant professor mechanical engineering, is developing an instrument to determine the age of geological materials on our neighboring planet’s surface. The system would allow scientists to study the geological history of Mars and better understand Martian water activity and climate.

With funding from the Keck Institute for Space Studies and Seattle University’s sabbatical program, Stipe set out to create a system that measures potassium (with a laser) and argon (with a mass spectrometer). “The goal of the study was to determine if our laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) instrument could precisely and accurately measure potassium concentration in basaltic rocks,” Stipe explains.   

It could. “From computer simulations, we knew we needed a precision better than 5 percent and a calibration curve that would allow for concentrations to be determined within +/-10 percent. We met our precision goal, and our accuracy was even better than expected (+/- 3 percent).”
Stipe expects the potassium-argon method will be able to determine the age of geological materials on Mars dating back as far as four to five billion years. He will present his findings at the Geological Society of America’s 2011 annual meeting next month, a conference attended by 6,000 scientists.

The next step is to develop a second-generation instrument that is “flight ready” and can handle the harsh Martian environment. “Mars doesn't have a protective magnetosphere, like Earth does,” says Stipe, “so specially designed instruments are required to stand up to the high levels of solar radiation.”

Stipe points out there’s no guarantee that NASA will bring the project to completion, but the goal is to have the instrument finalized by 2018. 

If all goes according to plan, Stipe’s instrument will one day take its place in the Mars Rover’s toolkit. 

"It's amazing to think that we can deliver a robotic vehicle that drives around on the surface of another planet that acts as a roving scientific research laboratory.”


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