European Space Agency: exploration sample analogue collection and curation facility

Basaltic landscape in Iceland © Robin Armstrong

Basaltic landscape in Iceland © Robin Armstrong

Principal Investigator

Dr Caroline Smith

Project summary

  • Focus: Characterising planetary analogues in terms of their basic mineralogy/geochemistry and physical properties and setting up a facility for their storage and curation.
  • Funding: European Space Agency
  • Dates: 2014-2018

The Natural History Museum has assembled an expert team of curatorial, research and technical staff with the required skills to build a Sample Analogue Curation Facility for the European Space Agency (ESA).

The ESA Sample Analogue Collection will support current and future technology development activities that are required for human and robotic exploration of Mars, Phobos, Deimos, C-Type Asteroids and The Moon. The long-term goal of this work is to produce a useful, accessible and sustainable resource for engineers and scientists developing technologies for ESA space exploration missions.


We use a combination of analytical techniques to determine the mineralogy and geochemistry of the analogues, as well as their major and trace element abundances, including:

  • Scanning electron microscopy (SEM)
  • X-ray diffraction (XRD)/X-ray fluorescence (XRF)
  • Electron microprobe analyses

The physical properties of the analogues are currently outsourced to the University of Portsmouth’s Geological and Environmental Laboratories. Their analyses include:

  • Particle size distribution
  • Grain shape and size analyses
  • Density and porosity

We have two main analogue types: basalt from a single source as whole-rock and aggregate (3mm, 6mm, 10mm, 19mm), and various clays. We compare our results with published data on Mars, Phobos, Deimos, C-Type Asteroids and The Moon.


Our results show that the basalt and the clay samples are similar to what is known about the surface of Mars in terms of their chemical and mineralogical properties. The bulk densities, grain sizes of the samples are also a reasonable analogue for Martian regolith. Martian rocks are similar to the basalt analogues, although the latter have slightly higher bulk densities (2870kg/m3) than those reported for Mars (2600-2800kg/m3).

The clay analogue samples are reasonable chemical and mineralogical analogues for the major chemical and mineral phases as expected for the surfaces of Phobos, Deimos and C-type asteroids. None of the analogues, however, have bulk densities similar to those reported for C-type asteroids (1.6-2.3g/cm3), but their other physical characteristics are similar.

The basalt analogue samples are reasonable chemical analogues for lunar samples, and very similar to the widely used NASA JSC-1A lunar analogue. The basaltic analogues also recreate the physical properties of lunar regolith samples well.

Origins, evolution and futures

We study the Earth's origins and environment, and the evolution of life.

Mineral and planetary sciences

Investigating the origins and evolution of Earth and our solar system.

Meteorites collection

The Museum houses one of the world's finest collections, consisting of 2,000 meteorites.