I'm a postdoctoral scholar studying planetary geology in the Planetary Sciences Group at UCF.
I'm interested in planetary materials, including their early evolution in the solar system, re-creating their exotic properties in the lab, and extracting them sustainably as space resources.
1. Carbonaceous muds (Recent abstract).
2. Martian clay formation and noble gas sequestration in the pre-Noachian (Recent publication).
3. High fidelity regolith simulants (Recent publication).
Last week I attended ASIME 2018 in Luxembourg, a follow on from the 2016 workshop of the same name. Over two days, scientists and asteroid mining companies came together to discuss asteroid composition as it relates to future mining activities. The recorded talks are available on YouTube from Day 1 and Day 2 (my talk on asteroid simulants here). I’ve listed some thoughts and observations below:
1. The economics of the path to asteroid mining are fascinating. Without a fuck you money player like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos in the game (yet?), you have to have an extremely tight roadmap to attract investors and make money in the near term, while making viable progress to actually mine things in space; this is probably 7-10 years off at this point, with no customers clearly identified yet. From what was presented publicly, Deep Space Industries seems to have the best handle on this. Just a day after the workshop they announced they’ve closed a new $3.5M round to work on the Meteor thruster and the Xplorer spacecraft concept. DSI is following a similar strategy to SpaceX where each step toward a stretch goal (SpaceX: Mars settlement) does two things simultaneously: earns money (SpaceX: commercial launch sales), and creates capability toward the stretch goal (SpaceX: learn how to launch and land reusable rockets).
2. Companies that don’t figure out how to straddle this gap will likely fail in the near term, although they might limp along with funding kicked in from the Luxembourg government. Of the 6 companies present at ASIME, only about half seemed to have a viable business model and a real understanding of the trade space. A website with pretty graphics is nice, but bending metal on actual hardware with a customer base is another thing.
3. I’m excited about what DSI’s Xplorer can do for planetary science research. They’re basically trying to bring down the cost of an NEO mission to the ~$10M range or less, which is a 2 orders of magnitude reduction from the $1B cost cap for OSIRIS-REx. If this works out you can imagine large universities or private donor money being able to fund capable asteroid missions without having to compete against 30+ other teams in NASA or ESA proposal rounds. I think this, plus interplanetary cubesats, is going to be a big part of the future for planetary research.
4. NEO discovery and prospecting are in poor shape, especially in terms of follow-on observations and spectral characterization. NEOCAM would help on the discovery side, but it seems like something has to give if the spectrophotometry and spectroscopy are going to get to the level needed for cataloging water-rich targets (although if you just want raw material to build structures in space, this point is moot). I doubt the asteroid mining companies can rely on scientists to do the work for them, and will probably have to bite the bullet and build some dedicated prospecting space telescopes. Whether this can be done cheaply is unclear, and some serious creativity (or just brute force capital investment) is probably needed to change the playing field here.
5. For identifying water-rich targets, the idea championed by Andy Rivkin is to simply identify CM-like bodies based on the 0.7 μm absorption caused by Fe-phyllosilicates. While low-risk, this strategy would pass up on everything CI-like or Tagish Lake-like that have double or even triple the water content of the CMs that sit at ~8 wt.% H2O. To properly evaluate this strategy it would be really useful to figure out (1) how biased the meteorite collection is against fragile CI-type material (i.e., would this strategy generate 1% false negatives or 50%?), and (2) how much spectral information is needed to reliably distinguish CI-like asteroids that have ~20 wt.% water from CR-like asteroids that have ~1%, neither of which have a 0.7 μm absorption. Whether this can be done without the difficult-to-observe 3 μm region is an interesting problem.
6. The lunar mining company ispace was previously unknown to me, and they’re rapidly expanding in three countries with 60+ employees and some pretty ambitious near-term plans. Private activities in cislunar space are going to get interesting in the next 5 years, especially if these companies can tap into NASA coffers by supporting HEOMD plans. It’s also going to bring legal and ethical issues with resource extraction to the forefront: will people work to designate protected scientific areas on the Moon before industry moves in? Can these be enforced meaningfully?
7. Scientists who attend these types of workshops really need to adapt their work to be useful and relevant to the topic at hand. Most people at least tried to address asteroid mining, but there were too many folks who stood up and gave boilerplate LPSC-style talks on their XYZ asteroid model with a new measurement M that improves the uncertainty on parameter P by 6%. If you’re not willing to reach across the aisle and make your science accessible to engineers/industry, then there’s not much point participating in interdisciplinary workshops.
I’m going to devote more time to writing about space resources. As a start, here’s a smorgasbord of sorts with what’s been happening lately in the field:
Phil Metzger and Julie Brisset at FSI began work on a ULA-funded grant to model lunar water extraction from regolith. The work is being done in coordination with Colorado School of Mines, and it’s interesting as ULA hasn’t previously made much noise in the space resources industry. But if it’s going to be a big thing, then nobody will want to be left out.
I’ve heard that Planetary Resources has laid off multiple people due to lack of funding, including the only bona fide planetary scientist they had on staff (and not as an advisor). This is worrisome because the whole point of this venture was that investors were in it for the long haul, and didn’t care about short-term ROI. Their website currently claims that the team is “growing”.
NASA released a Broad Agency Announcement focused on maturing ISRU technology to TRL 4-6, depending on the proposal “track”. They’re looking to fund a handful of trade studies and tech demos for components and subsystems that will work on the Moon and/or Mars. It’s hard to find much mention of asteroids in the call, reflecting the new direction within the agency.
The University of Luxembourg is hosting ASIME-2018, a follow up to the 2016 conference of the same name. The workshop will focus on the scientific side of asteroid mining: specifically, the nature and abundance of water on these bodies. I’ll hopefully be attending in person.
Finally, SpaceX wowed everyone with the impressive test demo of Falcon Heavy, a long time in the making. Hopefully this continues to drive down the cost of access to space and brings us closer to a fledgling space resources industry. I was able to catch the launch in person and it was quite something.
Our paper “Primordial Clays on Mars” went online in Nature today, with a nice write-up by Kevin Stacey on Brown’s website. This is a fairly bold and untested new idea, and there are a number of important questions that will help determine whether I’m completely full of it. I’m not nearly clever enough to figure out the answers to most of these, but hopefully this paper spurs interest in others to help out.
Deliquescence is the ability of certain materials to not only absorb moisture out of the atmosphere (i.e., hygroscopicity), but to actually dissolve in that water. Certain salts in the soils of Mars are likely to be deliquescent, and would quickly absorb water if brought into a humid, pressurized environment like a hab.
Here are two examples of deliquescent materials. The first is calcium perchlorate: Ca(ClO4)2. The video is sped up about 100x:
And here is iron sulfate: Fe2(SO4)3. This one is sped up ~900x, i.e., it deliquesces slower than the perchlorate:
It looks like the powders are melting, but in fact they are quite stable at room temperature in a dry environment.
The planets and moons of our solar system formed and evolved according to two sets of principles: basic physical and chemical ground rules, and chance events. For example, giant impacts are a natural consequence of the leftover crud from star formation careening around in orbital dynamics space. However, the specific collision between Earth and a Mars-sized body to form the Moon was a random even that, given slightly perturbed initial conditions, may not have happened. But does this matter? If you shuffle a deck of 52 playing cards, there was a 1 in 8x1067 chance that you ended up with the specific order of cards that you did. On the other hand, that’s the order the cards are in, so does it make sense to dwell on the probability of arriving at that point in hindsight? Or to think about the other paths not taken? (The anthropic principle comes to mind here).
Perhaps though, this way of thinking provides a means to understand the variety and evolution of exoplanets and exomoons. Because the number of extrasolar systems is so large (1024 from one estimate by David Kornreich, assuming every star has planets), the universe is essentially a massive Monte Carlo experiment in how to make a solar system. Every possible system that obeys the laws of physics and chemistry should exist. What this allows us to do then, is to think about chance events that played out in our own planetary neighborhood and ask: what if X never happened? Or if Y happened…a little to the left? The answers may not shed light on our own planets, but these potentialities almost certainly played out on exoplanets light years away. Here’s a couple examples:
(1) It’s fairly well established that a nearby supernova spewed enhanced amounts of the short-lived heat source 26Al into our solar nebula early in its history, which had profound effects on the evolution of planesimals and eventually the planets themselves. But what if that never happened? Very few bodies would have heated up and melted early on, prohibiting differentiation…and on, and on. Perhaps many (most?) exoplanetary systems did not receive a similar injection of 26Al, and evolved quite differently than our own.
(2) It’s even more well established that a gigantic impact occurred on Mars sometime around 4.5 billion years ago, scouring out an elliptical basin to form the northern lowlands and covering the rest of the planet with kilometers of impact melt and ejecta. This event shaped the entire geologic history of Mars: its unique early climate system that resulted from the North-South topographic dichotomy, the pathways of outflow channels into a possible (frozen?) northern ocean, and the burial of Mars’ primitive crust, which may have been deeply altered by an early outgassed atmosphere to form a thick clay-rich layer. What if the impact missed? Out there in the universe are likely trillions of Mars-sized planets in roughly the same orbit where that scenario played out: how did they evolve?
We may be a ways away from Star Trek-like exoplanet designations, but I think it’s worthwhile to consider what “types” of planets (ocean planets, clay planets, desert planets, etc.) are likely to be most common in extrasolar systems, and just how unique (or rare) our own planets are in comparison.
Happy to announce that I've accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Central Florida! I'll be working with Dan Britt, and will be branching out beyond Mars to look at other solar system bodies (they exist?!).
Here's some thoughts and review after presenting at the 3rd workshop to choose the landing site for the NASA Mars 2020 rover.
What's the bottom line coming out of the workshop?
Eight sites went in, and three (Jezero Crater, Northeast Syrtis, Columbia Hills) came out. Holden Crater was excoriated on every metric imaginable. The four other sites (Nili Fossae, Mawrth Valles, Southwest Melas and Eberswalde) didn't make the cut and quietly faded from consideration.
What's the deal with Columbia Hills?
There is universal appeal for Jezero Crater and high regard for Northeast Syrtis, but Columbia Hills was tepidly kept on to be “further developed and tested”. The Mars 2020 project's internal Landing Site Working Group strongly dislikes this site and recommended it be dropped immediately. Voting scores at the workshop weren't high enough to help overcome this, but Columbia Hills scored strongly on the Returned Sample Science Board's review and is kept alive by the potential link between digitate silica sinter deposits and similar biologically mediated structures found on Earth.
What does further development and testing entail?
Unclear. All the cards for Columbia Hills were laid out on the table at the workshop, and the Spirit rover that originally found the silica deposits is no longer functioning. It isn't obvious what kind of new information could be produced in the coming months, although this further evaluation may focus on whether or not the project believes they can actually cache samples of the fragile sinter deposits with the M2020 coring system.
Are the three finalist sites official?
No, the sites constitute the project's short list, but NASA HQ does not necessarily have to accept this list.
Could any of these sites be dropped?
Yes. Two of the top three sites (Jezero and Northeast Syrtis) require terrain-relative navigation (TRN), a descent and landing technology that has been approved for M2020 but could be descoped if the project runs into budgetary issues or tight deadlines. No TRN means no Jezero or Northeast Syrtis. Columbia Hills will be dropped if the project believes it cannot adequately cache the sinter deposits.
Could other sites be added back in?
What would it take for that to happen?
If TRN is descoped, the short list will have to be re-populated by sites accessible without TRN. New science discoveries could also bring in other sites: this could include complex organic molecules or stromatolite-type structures being discovered by the Curiosity rover at Gale Crater, or methane plumes being detected by ESA's Trace Gas Orbiter with a distinct, highly localized source. Or my dark horse favorite, macro-scale biosignatures discovered by the black and white camera on the InSight lander, purposefully sent to the most boring place on Mars we could find.
So then what is the most likely landing site for Mars 2020?
If TRN is not descoped, the rover will almost certainly land in Jezero Crater.
At this year's LPSC, I'm in on three abstracts:
I had the fortune to present at the 2nd workshop for the Mars 2020 landing site selection process last month. Our site, the Nili Fossae Trough, is now among eight remaining sites that will be studied in detail before the third workshop early in 2017:
During the same process for Mars Curiosity, a deep rift emerged between what can be called ‘morphologic’ landing sites versus ‘mineralogic’ landing sites. Morphologic sites tend to be younger in age, with distinct sedimentary layering visible from orbit. Mineralogic sites are rich in alteration minerals and ancient in age, but lack the geologic context needed to fully understand them from orbit. Morphology won out with the controversial selection of Gale Crater, buoyed by a key report of the working group chartered by the MSL project scientist.
That rift has returned this time in a more nuanced form: deltas versus non-deltas. Four of the final eight sites feature deltaic environments: Eberswalde, Holden, SW Melas, and Jezero. Jezero in particular is interesting because its deltas drew sediment from the carbonate and clay-rich Nili Fossae region; however, it’s also the most dangerous site to land and traverse at, and may be culled sooner rather than later for engineering reasons. The other three are more classic ‘morphologic’ sites that bear quite some similarity to Gale.
The appeal of deltaic environments on Mars is their potential, as demonstrated on Earth, to concentrate and preserve organic molecules. This has borne fruit with Curiosity’s success in detecting martian organics in lake sediments at Gale. However, I think an important caveat must be emphasized here. The organics that Curiosity found are simple organic molecules, the kind that cannot be distinguished from those that fall to the surface via meteorites. These do not constitute biosignatures, which must be clear indicators of life. A major goal of the Mars 2020 rover is to seek biosignatures specifically, and simple chlorinated hydrocarbons do not meet this goal. If instead we relaxed the goal to include these types of compounds, then a more effective (and orders of magnitude cheaper) mission would be to the deserts of Morocco, where martian organics are readily found inside meteorites delivered free of charge from the red planet.
There’s no disputing that a trip to a martian delta would likely yield organic molecules, but a deeper question needs to be asked of each of the eight possible landing sites: is there any reason to think that life itself would have been present in the environments recorded in their rock records? This can be laid out like so:
(1) Life is present > (2) Preservation mechanism exists > (3) Biosignature created
It’s a flaw of logic to focus all attention on (2) while ignoring (1), because (1) is really what matters here, even though it’s a tougher question to answer. No biosignatures would be found in a hypothetical preservation environment with perfect fidelity, if the only organic input to that environment is derived from chondritic infall. This is similar to the misguided focus on habitability with no concern for origins of life that plagues the planetary science community. Hopefully we can break out of this narrow focus on organic preservation, and think harder about where and when life could have been present on Mars.
My new paper — Evidence for a Widespread Basaltic Breccia Component in the Martian Low-Albedo Regions from the Reflectance Spectrum of Northwest Africa 7034 [whew!] — will come out shortly in the journal Icarus, co-authored by Jack Mustard and Carl Agee. I wanted to give some backstory on how it came to be, to complement the online media blitz. This paper got its beginnings at The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel last March: “Sure, I’ve got some upstairs in my room. I’ll go get it for you.” No, this wasn’t the sound of me scoring drugs, but securing a 0.99 gram chip of the martian meteorite Northwest Africa (NWA) 7034, known as Black Beauty, from Carl. NWA 7034 was already setting the planetary science world on fire, and now I had a piece; at roughly $10,000/g on the open market, a very expensive piece. I put it in my pocket.
Currently there are 79 collected and cataloged rocks known to have made their way from Mars to Earth. These are all basaltic/ultramafic samples, and that makes sense given everything we know about Mars. Pockets of trapped martian atmosphere in some of them confirmed the link beyond any reasonable doubt. But there’s always been a problem. The bulk chemistry of the martian meteorites — collectively the Shergottite, Nakhlite, and Chassignite (SNC) group — doesn’t match Mars’ crust. Neither does their spectral signature, as Vicki Hamilton demonstrated back in 2003 at thermal wavelengths (the story is the same in the visible/near-infrared (VNIR)). After Carl Agee showed that Black Beauty was different, that it was a breccia matching bulk Mars in chemistry, I had an obvious question: what does its spectrum look like?
We started by measuring the solid chip at RELAB, narrowing the aperture down to about a 1 mm spot size. We targeted some of the different clasts in the VNIR, then went back and did a couple additional measurements of more matrix-rich material. The results, in the words of Jack Mustard: “Looks like we’re not in Kansas anymore.” This meteorite was DARK. Like, really dark. It had a few subtle bands from pyroxene, but otherwise the spectra had more in common with a carbonaceous chondrite than an SNC meteorite. Importantly though, it looked like low-albedo martian terrains from OMEGA data. Switching to longer wavelengths with the FTIR, the picture got even richer: NWA 7034 was a much better match for ‘Surface Type 1’ — the majority of the planet that’s interpreted to be unaltered basalt — than any of the SNCs measured before. Now, we didn’t do true thermal emissivity measurements here (we used Kirchoff’s law to convert reflectance to emissivity), so folks at ASU might have some qualms, but we’re confident in the interpretations.
At this point we had enough to publish, but we wanted to get a handle on exactly why Black Beauty is so dark and spectrally featureless at VNIR wavelengths. Fortunately we had contacts at Headwall Photonics, who are doing really cutting-edge work on hyperspectral imaging technology. We brought our NWA 7034 sample up to Fitchburg, MA and measured it at Headwall’s facilities; to our knowledge this was the first time a hyperspectral camera had been used to image a meteorite. The results from hyperspectral images showed that it is the matrix that causes Black Beauty’s spectral properties. You can find clasts of pyroxene and basalt inside NWA 7034 that spectrally resemble the SNCs, but averaging over the entire surface of the chip gives a flat, dark spectrum similar to Mars’ surface, and similar to isolated pixels of the most matrix-rich material. It still isn’t totally clear which aspects of the matrix are most important in causing the meteorite’s low albedo. It could be the incredibly fine grain size, the high magnetite content, or exogenous carbonaceous infall that got incorporated into the breccia. All of these probably play a role. Either way, we argued from our results that most of the low-albedo regions on Mars probably contain a good fraction of brecciated material like NWA 7034, mixed with more intact volcanic rocks, dust and glass (alteration minerals aren’t visible on a global scale). This only makes sense given that Mars hasn’t been resurfaced globally since the heavy bombardment, and its crust should be beaten and battered like that of the Moon.
What’s next? Nothing for now, but currently we’re working with Justin Filiberto on a martian gabbroic meteorite, so stay tuned on that front.
Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón has taken in $716,392,705 in worldwide box office sales as of the time of writing. At a conservative estimate of $8/ticket, just under 90 million people saw the Clooney & Bullock flick in theaters. I think the only good thing about this is that 90 million people willingly paid to watch a film about space, and I just hope those same people go see Interstellar by Chris Nolan. Quite frankly, the message of Gravity is abysmal and discouraging. Ignore the impressive special effects, let go the scientific nitpickings, and think about the message this movie sends filmgoers home with: Space is a deadly and unforgiving place, and humans have no business being there. The final frame features Bullock, back on solid earth after her near-death catastrophe, grasping soft mud and crying in relief at the safety of terran ground. The message couldn’t be more clear: we belong on the surface, and it was folly to ever experiment by venturing upwards to the sky.
And why were Clooney and Bullock in space to begin with? Those in the know will recognize a Hubble repair mission, but Cuarón shows no hint of NASA’s scientific purpose, or goals, or of humanity’s aspirations to explore. His astronauts are fucking around with jetpacks in low-earth orbit, wasting taxpayer money, because that’s what he (and maybe most of the general public) thinks astronauts do. Of course the public can be forgiven for thinking this way, given the lull in human exploration since Apollo (thanks, Nixon), but Cuarón deserves no respite for writing and carrying through with such a dispiriting movie. Everything he gets wrong, though, Nolan gets right in Interstellar: Earth is not a safe haven to hunker down on, especially given humanity’s utter lack of stewardship for this planet. Whether it be global warming, plague, or asteroid impact, we are not safe here. We must leave the Earth to survive, and should anyways because of our unwavering instinct to explore. Interstellar’s opening act shows us what happens when we follow the logical conclusions that Gravity spells out: the dereliction of our species. But there is hope, and the tone of Nolan’s film is optimistic: if only we retain some sliver of curiosity, of pioneering (captured powerfully here by McConaughey’s character), there are infinite planets lying out there in wait. The same ingenuity that now lets us see new planets being born, and find tens of thousands of them, will one day carry us to one of these new worlds.
Interstellar is a deep, emotional, powerful film, and smug potshots at the technical details will completely miss the point and impact it delivers.