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Fairbanks students explore Mars

From Fairbanks, Casey Grove and Amy Hartley report on a team of space-minded graduate students seeking connections between Alaska and Mars.

In a dimly lit office in the West Ridge Research Building of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, John Chappelow sits at his computer analyzing data. A poster of the Red Planet’s pockmarked landscape hangs behind him, while a screensaver of Martian terrain occasionally blips into a slow pan across his computer screen.

Research assistant and graduate student Chappelow looks like he’s working at his desk in Fairbanks, but he’s really exploring the terrain of Mars. Students in the Geophysical Institute’s planetary science group spend as much time on other planets as human beings possibly can from 60 million miles away.

Chappelow is one of a handful of students making correlations between the Alaska landscape and those of other planets while working on graduate degrees within the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“Unless my advisor decides to send me to Mars, I can’t do any field work,” Chappelow says. “But if I can understand what’s happening here in Alaska, I can get an idea of the processes at work on other planets.”

The planet Mars dominates the students’ research due to its similarities to Earth. Like the Arctic, the Martian landscape is riddled with permafrost.

“One benefit of working in the Arctic is that it is very cold and dry, much like Mars,” said Buck Sharpton, president’s professor of remote sensing. Sharpton and Associate Research Professor Robbie Herrick serve as faculty members for the planetary sciences group. “Alaska is a good site for testing equipment and designing exploration strategies. We can study processes that occur here that also occur on Mars.”

Herrick joined the Geophysical Institute in 2004 after 10 years as a staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. Sharpton says Herrick provided the nascent program a needed boost. Herrick lends his expertise on impact craters and works with data from NASA’s unmanned missions to sites throughout the solar system.

Making comparisons between Mars and the landscape of the Arctic is a much cheaper approach to space exploration. To study these parallels requires a diverse scientific background, one that calls for a solid command of the fundamentals.

“Students must be well-rounded in physics, chemistry and math, but they also have to have this artistic eye that can interpret maps and landforms,” Sharpton said. “In planetary sciences, we’re combining the theoretical with empirical data.”

Chappelow’s research focuses on impact craters. He’s using a new approach to understanding crater characteristics called impact crater morphometry, which is helping scientists better understand the shape of craters on Mars and the way they were formed.

Chappelow isn’t the only student poring over thousands of images of Mars’ surface. Students Katie Hessen and Sharon Pitiss, both pursuing master’s degrees in geophysics, are studying the topography and statistics of impact craters on Mars. Pitiss uses the information she gathers to piece together the origin and evolution of Mars’ hematite region, Sinus Meridiani.

Understanding Mars’ topography is also the interest of Ph.D. candidate Fred Calef. Calef’s background in geology aids his studies of the Red Planet’s topography, but craters aren’t his only interest. His research also focuses on the ice-related features of the planet and is aided by images gathered by Spirit and Opportunity, two rovers NASA landed on Mars in January 2004 that continue to gather data as they roam the martian landscape.

-- Amy Hartley and Casey Grove

[Read more at UAF Geophysical Institute]

UAF Geophysical Institute | Posted 02.07.05 at 11:01 pm


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