Article updated on 11 November 2020.
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Observing and learning about Mars is incredibly important as it will help us to understand our own planet. Mars and Earth are surprisingly similar in many ways; Mars has wind, clouds, weather, an atmosphere, and dust storms. It also has snowbanks, glaciers and polar ice caps similar to our own. You’ll also find volcanoes, dry river channels, great rift valleys, and sand seas.
Technological Advances Help Study Neighboring Planets
Mars also has evidence of the existence of both liquid water and habitable environments. There are also many aspects about the planet that are distinctly different to Earth, and therefore in studying the similarities and differences of Mars, we can make significant conclusions about Earth.
Up until around 50 years ago, we knew almost nothing about our neighboring planets, but the development of technology to allow us to study them has yielded much valuable information.
Infrared spectroscopy plays a key role in the continual exploration of Mars. The current strategy of data collection relies heavily on its use to gather data and interpret findings on chemical information. It can answer a number of Mars’s most pressing science questions, it is essential for mineralogical analysis, truth testing of remote sensing measurements, nitrogen compound recognition, and detection of organic compounds.
At the beginning of space exploration, back in the 1960s, NASA flew two spacecraft up near Mars. The Mariner 6 and 7 carried infrared (IR) spectrometers, which were able to collect revolutionary findings relating to the composition of Mars’s atmosphere, confirming that there were trace amounts of water vapor and solid CO2. Findings also revealed that solid water and water hydrates existed on the planet’s surface, along with an oxidized oxyhydrate of iron which is significant, as it is evidence of aqueous weathering processes. This was the very first evidence to confirm liquid water had to have existed on the planet.
Fourier Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR)
To this day, infrared spectroscopy is still an important tool used to explore Mars. It is used to investigate both past and present conditions on the planet, to do this it examines the sample depositional environment which can indicate past conditions, as well as exploring the organic matter that currently exists, indicating actual habitation.
A number of space missions have used a type of infrared spectroscopy called Fourier infrared spectroscopy (FTIR). The benefits of this method are that it is cheap to run as it uses a fast and simple technique that is able to collect an abundance of data on the chemical composition of samples. Mars landers carry FTIR equipment to sense rocks remotely, but the future could see them being used for assessing drilled samples too.
Challenges of Infrared Spectroscopy
While it is a fundamental component of Mars exploration, infrared spectroscopy does have its challenges. The instruments are heavily relied on because their resource and analytical requirements are few, but they do have lower sensitivities in comparison with other equipment such as GC-MS. In addition, aeolian-deposited dust coatings on rock and soil surfaces results in a masking effect, which can hinder the remote sensing capabilities of infrared by impairing the ability of the wavelengths to reach the equipment through the dust.
Dust coatings occur at land sites of the Viking, Mars Pathfinder, and Mars Exploration Rover, hindering the process of data collection and analysis. In order to overcome this obstacle, more information is needed on the impact of dust coatings on rock surfaces.
Finally, with the increasing frequency of missions to Mars, data collection methods are being relied on more heavily, but currently, there are not enough experts to process the incoming information. The last hurdle to overcome will be encouraging the growth of a community of spectroscopists worldwide.