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"Chemically Striking Regions on Mars"

Our research is funded by a grant administered by NASA's Mars Data Analysis Program (MDAP). MDAP awards about 20 competitive grants each year that focus on exploring Mars with publicly available mission data.


Duration: May 2013 - May 2016

Agency: NASA

Amount: $253k


Dr. Karunatillake received the three-year award for his proposal to develop models of geologic evolution for regions on Mars that appear chemically striking, termed "chemical provinces." Dr. Karunatillake and his colleagues Scott McLennan (Stony Brook University, NY), Steven Squyres (Cornell University, NY), Jeff Taylor (University of Hawaii, HI), Olivier Gasnault (Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie, France), William Boynton (University of Arizona, AZ), and Ramy El Maarry (Bern Universtät, Switzerland) published a trilogy of papers in 2009 - 2010 developing chemical provinces from maps of elemental mass fractions on Mars generated with the Mars Odyssey Mission's Gamma Ray and Neutron Spectrometers; a first in the exploration of Mars. A related study of a radar stealth region on Mars that overlaps with a chemical province motivated Dr. Karunatillake's proposal for the current grant.


The grant, with Drs. McLennan, Jonathan Husch (Rider University, NJ), Deanne Rogers (Stony Brook University), and J.R. Skok (LSU) as collaborators, supports Dr. Karunatillake's establishment of the Planetary Science Laboratory (PSL) at LSU. With a mission to model geological evolution of planetary bodies by synthesizing in situ and orbital data, the PSL relies on computational analyses to advance planetary science. LSU's Geology and Geophysics community involved in sedimentary and solid Earth processes provide terrestrial analog expertise for research conducted by the PSL. This includes important contributions from Drs. Gary Byerly, Melanie Stiegler, Alexander Webb, Juan Lorenzo, and Huiming Bao. LSU's CCT led by Drs. Joel Tohline, Robert Kooima, and Honggao Lui provides computational expertise. The interdisciplinary nature of PSL research enabled emerging collaborations with Drs. Greg Guzik (Physics & Astronomy), John Battista (Life Sciences), Brent Christner (Life Sciences), and Maheshi Dassanayake (Life Sciences).


In addition to supporting Dr. Karunatillake's incoming PhD student, Ms. Nicole Button, with a research assistantship, Dr. Karunatillake's grant supports research travel and equipment purchases for the PSL, including related work by Dr. J. R. Skok salaried by the College of Science and Geology and Geophysics with a three year postdoctoral scientist fellowship.


A highlight of projects led by Dr. Karunatillake underway at the PSL with grant support includes modeling the processes yielding a chemical province along the South-Eastern lava flows of Elysium Mons. Dating to the most recent geologic epoch, the Amazonian, on Mars, these lava flows and underlying region may bear evidence of ancient lava-volatile interactions, perhaps involving shallow groundwater proximal to the Cerberus Fossae fissures. Dr. Skok's expertise in visible and near infrared spectroscopy and terrain analyses will enable the PSL to assess the mineralogy and geomorphology of this area using Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) and HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) data.


Already under review for publication, the grant supported a multi-institutional investigation of hydrous iron sulfates as a mineral group driving the hydration of bulk "soil" in the ancient Southern Highlands of Mars. As the second lead author of this work, Dr. James Wray at the Georgia Institute of Technology remains engaged in an extended collaboration with the PSL to assess how the underlying models may apply for the only active brine flows currently known on Mars, termed "recurring slope lineae."


One of Ms. Button's initial investigations supported by the grant involves a clast embedded in and distorting sedimentary strata at ~80 m wide plateau, Home Plate, at Gusev Crater. She will develop an investigative methodology using terrestrial analogs of glacio-lacustrine settings that produce drop-stones and volcaniclastic settings that produce bomb-sags. This pilot study will validate a strategy to distinguish between such environment, with critical implications to planetary habitability.

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