TES NEWS, Volume 4, Number 2, May 1995

What Are We Looking For on Mars?

Below, ASU graduate student Vicky Hamilton explains her research on the thermal infrared spectra of pyroxene minerals. The Mars Global Surveyor Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES) should be able to detect these important rock-forming minerals on the Red Planet. Visible and near-infrared spectra obtained from Earth-based telescopes and the Soviet Phobos 2 spacecraft that orbited Mars in 1989 have provided evidence that pyroxenes are present. The TES will help confirm and refine this important result. This is the first in a series of articles we plan to run over the next several years that explain aspects of the research being done by TES scientists at ASU. -- Editor

Understanding Martian Volcanic Rocks and Their Minerals With the MGS TES

by Vicky Hamilton, Arizona State University

The main purpose of the Mars Global Surveyor Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES) instrument is to provide information about the geology of Mars. One of my primary interests as a geologist is volcanology.

On Earth, volcanoes are classified into different types depending on where they are located, what types of eruptions they generate, and what types lavas/rocks they produce. For example, explosive volcanoes that generate ash and light-colored, silica-rich, rocks are commonly found near the edges of continents where the oceanic crust is being subducted under the continental crust. An example of this type of volcano is Mt. St. Helens which erupted in 1980. Less explosive, but still dynamic, eruptions are common at shield volcanoes such as found in Hawaii. These volcanoes produce rocks of basaltic, or mafic, composition. Mafic rocks are usually black and have abundant iron and magnesium. I have chosen to study basalt because it is likely to be found on Mars.

Based primarily on observations from the 1970's Viking missions, a great deal of the surface of Mars is believed to be covered by basaltic rocks. If this is the case, then the more we know about the thermal infrared properties of these rocks and their minerals, the better we will be prepared to interpret the data sent back by the Mars Global Surveyor TES.


Hubble Space Telescope view of Syrtis Major region of Mars, in February 1995. Syrtis Major is a large dark-hued area (SM) that 100 years ago was suspected to be covered with vegetation. We now know that Syrtis Major is a broad shield volcano covered by dark soils and windblown sand. Observations from the 1989 Phobos 2 mission have led Brown University (Providence, RI) scientist John F. Mustard and his colleagues to conclude that the region has sand or rocks containing pyroxene minerals- perhaps the MGS TES will confirm this view and provide more detailed information. Photo courtesy NASA and P. James (U. Toledo).

Rocks are made up of different minerals. Basalts are composed primarily of the minerals pyroxene and olivine with some glass and feldspar. Knowledge of the infrared properties of individual minerals is important to understanding the infrared spectrum of a rock such as basalt. I am studying pyroxenes because they have not yet been thoroughly examined in the thermal infrared, and because many of the rocks we expect to see at Mars should contain pyroxene.

"Pyroxene" is a general term used to refer to a whole class of minerals that have the same crystal structure, but different chemical compositions. Pyroxenes found in volcanic rocks are made of silicon and oxygen plus magnesium, iron, calcium (and magnesium or iron), or some combination of magnesium and iron (with or without calcium). Each of the different pyroxene minerals form under different pressure and temperature conditions (underground) in the basaltic magma. Therefore, the presence of certain pyroxenes in a basaltic rock can tell a geologist a lot about the conditions under which the original magma was generated.

In the thermal infrared, pyroxene spectra are different from the spectra of other silicon-oxygen-based minerals (CLICK HERE for spectra of some key minerals). However, each of the pyroxene minerals produces a slightly different spectrum due to the differences in composition. My research is focused on establishing exactly how the pyroxene spectra change as composition changes, and how accurately we can measure those compositional changes with thermal infrared spectroscopy. When this is done, we will know how accurately we will be able to identify these minerals when we get data from the TES at Mars.

Once we are able to identify and study the minerals of martian volcanic rocks, we will be able to make interpretations about the way those rocks formed, and how their processes of formation may have changed over the course of Mars' geologic history. These changes provide information on the evolution of Mars' interior processes, and may give us clues as to why Mars is so unlike our own planet today.

About the Author:

Vicky Hamilton is finishing her second year in the geology Ph.D. program at Arizona State University. Her research interests focus on remote sensing of Earth, Mars, and Venus. She has a Bachelor's degree in Geology from Occidental College in Los Angeles, and has spent time working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, on the Magellan mission, which used radar to map the surface of Venus. If you want to know more about the content of this article, or Vicky's research, you can contact her via e-mail at hamilton@elvis.mars.asu.edu, or by phone at (602) 965-1790.

Back to Contents of TES News May 1995

Article by Vicky Hamilton, April 1995

Edited by K.S. Edgett, April 1995