Director’s Letter May 2022

Photo credit Jeremy Snyder East River Valley

What can Red Rock Mountain tell us about the Red Planet?

Red Rock rises just south and east of Gothic. A relatively easy climb with good south facing exposure, it is a popular first hike for RMBL students without a lot of experience. Ferdinand Hayden, visiting the East River valley 150 years ago, indicated Red Mountain was laid down during the Carboniferous period about 300 million years ago, a time also known as the Age of Amphibians. Many years later Dr. Ralph Langenheim emphasized the complexity of the geology of the area and assigned Red Rock and surrounding areas to the Gothic formation, emerging just before the Maroon Formation. Red Rock is teeming with life, past (e.g., marine organisms and decayed/compressed plant material) and present (e.g., aspen trees, wildflowers, mountain goats, and students).

Given that RMBL is an organization dedicated to the study of life, primarily focused on the Gunnison Basin, a connection to Mars seems a stretch. Not only is Mars tens of millions of miles away, but the question of whether life exists, or ever existed, on the Red Planet, or Mars, is a major area of scientific investigation. In 2018 I was sitting in the Gothic coffee shop realizing that there were several, different scientific conversations going on about Mars. Coincidence or sign of a cosmic convergence?

Cosmic convergence. Last year when a research group with a primary interest in Mars approached us about research in Gothic, a light bulb came on. In 2018 RMBL hosted an airborne observatory operated by the National Ecological Observatory Network. A plane used hyperspectral imagery, measuring light reflected off the ground broken up into 500+ different frequency bands, to map the local valleys. That information can be used to understand many things, including mapping plants, pollution, and water. These flights regularly occur around the world, but led by Dr. Dana Chadwick, now with the Jet Propulsion Lab, and Dr. Kate Maher (Stanford), (see adjoining article) the Gothic flights were the first such flights with extensive ground truthing, including data collected from the vicinity of Red Rock.

And where does Mars come in? These same sensor systems are being used to map and explore for life on Mars. The United States operates an Earth Observing System consisting of satellites measuring light from the ground. Satellite-generated information isn’t as good as plane-based measurements because satellite data is broken up into fewer frequencies and is measured on a scale of 30 meters. And we deploy similar satellites in orbit around Mars, such as CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars). What we learn from integrating data from field sensors, drones, planes, and satellites helps us think about sensor deployment on Mars.

Our ability to measure and understand the world is being rapidly transformed by emerging sensor technology and machine learning techniques that translate large volumes of data into understanding. Because of the intensity of research at RMBL, techniques deployed at RMBL help see other places, including Mars. I’m occasionally asked why the work done at RMBL matters for other places. I now have an easy response. If RMBL-based research can help us understand life and water on Mars, certainly it isn’t a big stretch to understand how RMBL-research can inform how we see the Himalayas or the Andes!

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL