Measuring Martian Meteorites at Houston’s Lunar and Planetary Institute

Burbank, Calif. April 11, 2007 — 37 Martian rocks that somehow reached our planet over the eons may be key to telling us how Mars was formed, and may also tell us the best place to land when we visit the Red Planet.

In their latest online documentary, “The Surface of Mars,” The Futures Channel takes students to the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas to meet experimental petrologist Dr. Molly McCanta. She studies Martian rocks that landed on Earth as meteorites. She knows they’re from Mars, she explains, from the gases trapped inside the rocks. Her challenge is not small.

“Working on Mars, working on any other planet, is always a big challenge because I can’t just pick up a rock and study it,” she says. “What we’re attempting to do is take 37 small bits of rock and recreate the whole geologic history of a planet.”

She explains in the movie, now showing on The Futures Channel’s website, that with the help of a spacecraft orbiting Mars measuring the topographical data, as well as the Mars Rovers collecting rock samples, all of her scientific detective work will help to reveal the geological formation of a planet similar to Earth. It is also possible that her research could lead to discoveries of where other life forms may have originated. As Dr. McCanta states, “the general idea is that where there’s water, you have life forms.” The polar regions and higher latitudes may reveal the mystery one day, she says.

She is enthusiastic about her work and hopes others will find it exciting too. “Young people are encouraged to get involved at the early stages,” Dr. McCanta says in the movie, “because they’re the ones who are actually going to be the scientists when spacecrafts get there and start producing data and sending it back to earth.”

The Lunar and Planetary Institute is one of the foremost resources for scientists focused on the exploration of the solar system with an expansive collection of space photography, including the earliest explorations of the Moon and the solar system.

“We provide a conduit for scientists from around the world, to come and get access to those collections,” says Dr. Steve Mackwell, the Institute’s Director. “It is an institute that is designed to provide a scientific and support role for NASA and its connection to the university community. They’re all working on various aspects of solar system research.”

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