Columbia Basin plays a hand in Mars mission
What possibly could the Columbia Basin and its channeled scablands have in common with the Red Planet, millions of miles away?
Turns out, more than you would think.
Scientists believe that billions of years ago Mars experienced not only volcanic episodes but also great floods that carved out massive, stark cliffs and ancient bodies of water. Left behind were the Red Planet’s scablands.
Back on earth, millions of years ago the lava that flowed over the Columbia Basin was the first in a series of catastrophic events that came together to shape this area. The lava flowed over vast areas, only to cool and then be carved by massive glacial floods.
The Columbia Basin is the only place on the planet that comes close to having the geologic features of those found on Mars, said Melissa Rice, assistant professor of planetary science at Western Washington University. Both the Red Planet and the Columbia River Gorge were formed by catastrophic floods that scoured the landscape, Rice said.
“This is the only place in the world where this exact thing has happened,” she said recently from the home of Ken and Susan Lacy that overlooks the dramatic cliffs of Crescent Bar, the Columbia River Gorge and the West Bar’s giant ripples – all signs left behind from the Ice Age floods.
Rice was among 30 scientists, engineers and graduate students from around the nation and the globe who visited the area last month on a mission to get a close-up and personal view of the local channeled scablands. Some of those who visited the area are among the world’s top Mars scientists.
The two-day visit came as the team prepares to get down to work designing and building a camera system that will be on the next rover mission, to be launched in 2020 and on Mars in 2021. Scheduled to operate on Mars for 10 years, the rover will search for signs of past life on the Red Planet.
The team decided to meet up for two days of touring and getting to know one another before heading to a rover-planning meeting in Bellingham. The gathering in Eastern Washington was the closest they could get to the next best thing.
“We don’t get to go to Mars,” Rice said.
In their trip around the area, the team on its first travel day visited the Ginkgo National Forest near Vantage and the Frenchman Coulee. They went to an overlook near the Potholes Coulee to see the butte-and-basin topography. They even stopped on Trinidad Hill, where, dressed in orange vests, they got out of their cars to feel the Eastern Washington basalt. On Day Two, they were headed to Dry Falls and the Moses Coulee.
At the Lacy home, several members of the team walked out the couple’s back door and gasped as they took in the view of the river and its gorge.
Jeff Jones, planetary geologist at John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, described the area as a “great geologic experience.”
Dr. Kjarton Kinch of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, the world’s expert on Martian dust, was excited to hear the flood stories from Ken Lacy. Kinch called the local scenery “spectacular.”
The rover the team is helping to design will be the fifth to be sent to Mars. In past missions, the rovers have had unique objectives, such as searching for signs of habitability or evidence of water on Mars.
“This is the first mission actively searching for signs of past life,” Rice said.
Scientists are searching for “bio-signatures,” or pieces of evidence that may exist in the rock record on Mars, Rice said. While the bio-signatures could exist in many forms, such as a dinosaur bone sticking out of the ground, scientists likely are looking for concentrations of organic molecules, the building blocks of life, preserved in the rock, Rice said.
Rice and her team are designing and building the instruments that will be used to search for those bio-signatures. The instruments will be installed on a long, skinny neck, called a mast, at the front of the rover. The cameras will serve as the eyes of the rover, Rice said.
After leaving Eastern Washington, the scientists were headed to a “community meeting” of scientists that were to narrow down the landing sites for the 2020 rover. Thirty potential sites were narrowed to eight. Those eight will be taken down to four in January, and the camera team will discuss which of those sites it wants to support, Rice said.
“We only get to drive around 10 kilometers, so the landing site is important,” Rice said.
Ken Lacy, a board member of the Ice Age Flood Institute, said that by inviting the group into his home and hosting a barbecue he was hoping to share a piece of the area and its geologic history with the Mars scientists. It’s an exciting mission, he said, and he and his wife were happy to host the group.
“And maybe, in some small way, it helps,” he said.
— By Jill FitzSimmons, firstname.lastname@example.org