Aussie technology set to help NASA find life on Mars

The CSIRO and NASA are currently in talks to develop new exploration technologies for use on the Moon and Mars

The CSIRO and NASA are in talks to develop exploration technologies currently employed by the Australian minerals industry, for use on the Moon and Mars.

The CSIRO's leading exploration and mining scientist, Dr Brent McInnes, has just completed work with the team at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre to collaborate on the Alphachron development. McInnes won the 2007 Fulbright Professional Business / Industry (Coral Sea) scholarship.

"My work with NASA involved investigating whether a CSIRO instrument for mineral dating, called the Alphachron, could be adapted for measuring the ages of minerals on Mars," he said. "NASA is looking to take the instrument and to miniaturise it to take to Mars."

The same minerals that can be found in WA — and in Australia as a whole — can also be found on Mars

Dr Brent McInnes

According to McInnes, the key issue is to date the elements on Mars. Currently the Alphachron is used to date iron oxide in the Western Australia Kimberley region, which is the same iron oxide found on Mars.

The highest priority is to understand when liquid water was present on Mars. "The same minerals that can be found in WA — and in Australia as a whole — can also be found on Mars," McInnes said. Accordingly, by using the Alphachron to date minerals on Mars and thus tell when liquid water may have been present, it can be inferred when life may have been sustainable near the surface of the planet.

When the CSIRO does its analysis using the Alphachron in Australia, it has to separate the minerals to measure them out for testing. On Mars, due to billions of years of erosion, the iron oxide is basically in the forms of 'rust pellets'. This allows the team to select conduct analysis on these 'pellets' individually.

It is hoped that if the miniaturisation work can go ahead the technology will be considered for the NASA's next rover mission — set to travel to Mars by 2010.

A new rover — almost the size of a small car — called the Mars Science Laboratory will collect soil and rock samples and analyse them for organic compounds and environmental conditions that could have supported microbial life now or in the past.

At present the mission is set to include a neutron-based hydrogen detector for locating water provided by the Russian Federal Space Agency, a meteorological package provided by the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science, and a spectrometer provided by the Canadian Space Agency.

NASA has also invited Australia, along with 12 other nations, to join it in returning to the Moon in 2020 and establishing a lunar outpost by 2025.

Getting the Alphachron to be considered for the mission is an intricate process involving a notice of intent to the instrument program and then raising money for tests, for starters.

Dr McInnes heads the invention team for the Alphachron and he's successfully taken the project from development four years ago to commercialisation last year — selling the Australian technology to several countries.

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