Ancient sedimentary processes on Mars at the ExoMars 2022 landing site and beyond

The surface of Mars

A rift on the planet Mars ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Numerous sedimentary rocks have been observed from orbit on the surface of Mars, which are indicators of a past climate that could support liquid water and possibly life. This project will use data from remote sensing and the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover to characterise the formation environment of ancient sedimentary basins at the Oxia Planum landing site and more regionally on Mars.

Project background

Since the arrival of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in 2006, we have been living in a golden age of Mars exploration. There is now complete coverage of the surface of Mars at ~5 m/pixel and partial coverage up to a maximum of ~25 cm/pixel.

This revolution in image coverage has revealed a huge diversity in sedimentary rocks and landforms across the surface (e.g. Grotzinger and Miliken 2012), which suggest that the past climate and environmental conditions differed from the cold and hyperarid desert we can see today.

This interpretation has been confirmed by numerous rovers on Mars, such as the Curiosity rover in Gale crater (e.g. Grotzinger et al. 2015) and the Opportunity rover in Meridiani Planum (e.g. Squyres and Knoll 2005). 

In 2023, the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Rosalind Franklin Rover will land at Oxia Planum, an ancient sedimentary basin on Mars which is thought to have once hosted a lake. The main objective of the rover is to look for signs of ancient life, and so to meet this goal, understanding the geological context of the landing site is crucial. Additionally, interpreting the sedimentary geology at Oxia Planum and more widely on Mars is key for understanding the ancient martian climate. 

The low erosion rates on Mars mean that the geomorphology and structure of many ancient landforms has been preserved, which can still reveal much about their formation environment by comparison with analogous features on Earth. 

Project objectives

The objectives of this project are to understand the formation processes and environment of the sedimentary basins at Oxia Planum and beyond, specifically: 

  1. Examine the formation environment of depositional fluvial basins local and regional to Oxia Planum using high-resolution image, topographic, and compositional data from orbital spacecraft.  
  2. Investigate the distribution, morphology, and composition of sediment fans (both alluvial and deltaic) within the Valles Marineris canyon system to determine the influence of both tectonics and climate. 
  3. Characterise local sedimentary outcrops observed by the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover with the Oxia Planum basin and evaluate the hypotheses established in (1). 

What you will do

The student will learn to use high resolution imagery from the Context Camera (CTX) and High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) instruments to produce 3D digital terrain models (DTMs), and how to process hyperspectral data from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) instrument.

This will be done using industry standard GIS software (ArcGIS, ENVI, Socet Set). The student will also have access to newly acquired colour CaSSIS images through two supervisors who are science team members.

The student will also work with images acquired by the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover mission, through the supervisors’ involvement in the Panoramic Camera (PanCam) instrument. There is also the potential for the student to support ExoMars operations. 

This project will be ideally suited for a student with a background in planetary science, geology, geomorphology or another geosciences subject. 

Eligibility

To be classed as a home student, candidates must meet the following criteria:

  • Be a UK National (meeting residency requirements), or
  • Have settled status, or
  • Have pre-settled status (meeting residency requirements), or  
  • Have indefinite leave to remain or enter  

 If a candidate does not meet the criteria above, they would be classed as an International student.

Further guidance on UKRI Eligibility Criteria can be found on the UKRI website

How to apply

Please send the following documents to Anna Hutson (postgradoffice@nhm.ac.uk)

  • Curriculum vitae
  • Covering letter outlining your interest in the PhD project, relevant skills training, experience and qualifications, and a statement of how this PhD project fits your career development plans.
  • Transcripts of undergraduate and Masters degree results.
  • Two academic references including (if applicable) Masters project supervisor.
mars rover on the surface of mars

The ExoFIT rover during field trials for the upcoming ExoMars mission image by Airbus.

 Coprates Chasma

Figure 1: (a) CTX perspective view of a stepped sediment fan in Coprates Chasma, part of the Valles Marineris canyon system; (b) CTX perspective view of delta remnant in Eberswalde crater, the site of a former lake. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS.

Apply for this project

This is an Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) funded studentship.

Read the eligibility criteria and application guidance below, then send your application to postgradoffice@nhm.ac.uk.

Application deadline: 29 January 2021

Any questions?

Natural History Museum

Dr Joel Davis

Supervisors

Natural History Museum

Dr Joel Davis

Dr Peter Grindrod

Imperial College London

Professor Sanjeev Gupta 

University of Nantes

Dr Susan Conway

References

Grotzinger and Miliken (2012)  The sedimentary rock record of Mars: distribution, origins, and global stratigraphy  SEPM Special Publication

Grotzinger et al. (2015) Deposition, exhumation, and paleoclimate of an ancient lake deposit, Gale crater, Mars. Science 

Squyres and Knoll (2005) Sedimentary rocks at Meridiani Planum: Origin, diagenesis, and implications for life on Mars. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 

We welcome applications from everyone

We offer a stimulating and professional environment in which to work. We look for staff who can work according to our values: diversity, creativity, connection and evidence-based thinking. 

Funding

This project is funded for 3.5 years as an Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) studentship, which will cover all fees and a student stipend if you are from the UK, or from the EU and meet residency requirements (settled status, or 3 years full-time residency in the UK).

For full details on what is covered by the studentship please see our terms and conditions