SCOL Project: Experimental Constraints on Ancient Martian Surface Water Chemistry
Mars is a planet that preserves a record of some of the most ancient habitable environments in the solar system. Like pages in a book, this record is contained in layers of sedimentary rock that accumulated billions of years ago under a thicker atmosphere, on lands crisscrossed by rivers and streams, and dotted by crater lakes. On the Earth, the forces of plate tectonics and weather continually reshape the planet’s surface. Lacking these active agents of renewal and erosion, Mars has essentially been frozen in time for billions of years. Accordingly, Mars’ sedimentary rock archive provides an opportunity to peer into the deep recesses of planetary history to understand the environmental conditions and chemical reactions that gave rise to the first forms of life in the solar system.
Unfortunately, the record of early pre-biological processes is written in an unfamiliar language – ancient Martian environments were sufficiently different from the familiar Earth that we do not fully understand how to use Martian sedimentary rocks to interpret them. To build this understanding, my research group will conduct laboratory experiments that are designed to simulate the conditions that gave rise to key properties of these important rocks. For example, some of our experiments will simulate the conditions in ancient Martian lake waters, allowing us to understand what minerals would have formed in them, and what chemical elements would have been available to build complex organic molecules from simple compounds. Ultimately, these experiments should enable us to more confidently interpret the information that is received from missions sent to investigate the Red Planet’s geological record, such as the upcoming NASA Mars 2020 Rover mission. In turn, this will provide us with a more informed view of the conditions that set the stage for life’s origins.
Joel Hurowitz is a geochemist and planetary scientist working on the exploration of Mars and the study of modern and ancient Mars analog environments on Earth. Specializing in understanding the processes of sedimentary rock formation and evolution, Joel has worked extensively on the ongoing Mars Exploration Rover mission, launched in 2003, and the more recent Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover mission, which was launched in 2011. He has played a variety of roles on these missions from scientist, to rover instrument design and operations specialist, to science and engineering operations team leader.
Joel is the deputy principal investigator of one of the seven instruments recently selected for the science payload of the Mars 2020 rover mission, which is expected to operate on Mars at least through the year 2023. This instrument, called PIXL, for Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, is a micro-focus X-ray fluorescence instrument that will produce high-fidelity maps of the distribution and abundance of chemical elements within rocks and soils at the Mars 2020 rover landing site.
Joel received his Ph.D. from Stony Brook University working under the supervision of Dr. Scott McLennan. He was a Caltech postdoctoral scholar at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2006-2007 working with Dr. Albert Yen. From 2007 to 2013, Dr. Hurowitz was a research scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In 2013, he joined the faculty of the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University where he is an assistant professor.