First-year students in the RIT science exploration program are searching for life on Mars. The small group of undeclared students in the College of Science will analyze fragments from six Martian meteorites for clues to another world. Their research will lead them to sample different aspects of science and, perhaps, find a discipline to major in next year.
Program director Roger Dube didn’t hesitate to ask the incoming students to try to answer one of the biggest questions of the century.
“The project had to have a hands-on laboratory component, an opportunity to exercise the different disciplines in a balanced way, and sizzle. It had to have something to it that makes them excited,” said Dube, professor in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science.
Dube obtained the six meteorite fragments, or carbonatious chondrites, from the Lunar and Planetary Institute. Each came with a chemical analysis and provenance, including date and location of its discovery. He is confident the shards derive from rocks ejected from Mars 10,000 to 100,000 years ago.
“When asteroids hit Mars, they kick up huge clouds of Martian dirt and big chunks of rock get flung into the solar system,” Dube said. “We’ve only been able to identify Martian meteorites confidently since we’ve had rovers on Mars. We were able to do a chemical analysis of what Martian soil looks like.”
The ratio of two isotopes of the element argon identifies a meteorite as “Martian,” he said. It’s an identifying signature.
“Since Mars lost its atmosphere early, heavier isotopes in the air are abundant and appear in the rocks,” Dube said. “The ratio of these two isotopes is markedly different in rocks on Earth and rocks on Mars. The early rovers confirmed this ratio, and it acts as a reliable marker.”
Meteorites also look different than rocks found on Earth.
“The surface of the meteorite gets melted as it travels through the Earth’s atmosphere and ends up with molten rock on the outside,” Dube said. “That’s the outer skin. Inside the rock is totally preserved.”
The science exploration program, in its third year, is a learning environment that requires students to brainstorm and problem-solve whatever idea Dube presents, whether it’s analyzing rocks from Mars or creating a backpack water-filtration system or a microbiological fuel cell, as in the previous years.
The students form teams and sub groups and set goals. They exercise project management, critical thinking and communication skills as they narrow their research and define different techniques to explore.
“I expect the students to be the leaders of the project,” Dube said. “I want them to take ownership of the whole thing. I’m going to be there to make sure they don’t fall off the tracks.”
This year’s group will take direction from existing research and techniques other scientists have used to look for biological activity on Mars. Their project will lead them to professors in the College of Science whose laboratories hold powerful instruments that could help them find traces of something recognizable in the rocks.
“Hopefully by Imagine RIT they will have done all the analysis and have identified regions and features that are candidates,” Dube said. “If they find a candidate, everyone will focus on that and everything we can to confirm our suspicions.”