An Interview with Kirsten Siebach, Ph.D., Rice University

Implementing Mars Mission Technology and Science on Earth

Published
American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

Mars missions are notable not only for their exploration of the Red Planet, but also for the revolutionary way in which sensors, analytics, real-time visualization, and data management are implemented. All the technological and scientific breakthroughs make sense for remote drilling and exploration operations here on earth, particularly when there are harsh conditions or complications due to supply chain or environmental issues. AAPG’s Astrogeology Committee is not only dedicated to the geology of Mars, but also the way that energy companies have developed technologies in conjunction with the Mars Missions and how they are benefitting operations today.

Kirsten Siebach
Kirsten Siebach
Mars mission technologies implemented in the energy industry: Specific examples (just to name a few) include Diversified Well Logging’s LIBS Laster Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy, where CEO David Tonner reports that it is used for the analysis of drill cuttings for near real-time rock composition. RoboLogger is the name of the robotics-enabled technology.

Gary Hargraves, Digital Lead for Capgemini, reports that the data collection instrumentation panel on the Curiosity mars rover and corresponding data operations center was built and now managed by Capgemini.

The machine learning and artificial intelligence functions used in the Mars missions are also used for imaging in the subsurface. Sashi Gunturu, founder of Petrabytes, reports that Petrabytes and others have been using ML for pattern and anomaly detection using image analysis for Seismic, Spectral Energy analysis using Distributed Acoustic Sensing and hyperspectral data. Databricks Lakehouse provides the ability to store all of the above large scale data along with real time streaming data. More importantly a platform to build and deploy in the cloud.

Sunil Garg of dataVediK summarizes it this way: “We use it all at dataVediK- huge amounts of data generated by sensors, data management, ML/AI, real time visualization. Not as advanced as Mars mission, but not too far. This is where Houston excels - excellent opportunities for the 3 main industries - healthcare, space and Energy to learn and borrow technologies from each other.”

Course on NASA’s Mars Missions: Now you have a chance to learn about the science and the technology of the missions to Mars from Kirsten Siebach, who has been working with NASA’s Mars missions including Perseverance and other robotic missions, including InSight. Dr. Siebach is offering Missions to Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet in a blend of “live” online sessions (recorded also) and on-demand content from March 1 – June 1, 2022. You can sign up at any time for the on-demand content. https://glasscock.rice.edu/course?id=36701387


Interview with Kirsten Siebach
What is your name and background?

My name is Kirsten Siebach, I am an assistant professor of planetary geology at Rice University in Houston, TX. I grew up in Northern Virginia and went to Washington University in St. Louis for college, where I had the good fortune of meeting Professor Ray Arvidson in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department. I started working on datasets from the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, then got to be on the operations team for the Phoenix lander, which landed near the north pole of Mars in 2008. I was hooked on Mars and especially on mission projects. I went to Caltech to complete a PhD working on the Mars Science Laboratory mission with Professor John Grotzinger, and then continued that work in a postdoc at Stony Brook University with Professor Scott McLennan. All along the way I have loved taking every opportunity to share our discoveries on Mars with schools, interest groups, and the public at large. Now as a professor I’m thrilled to continue working on the Curiosity and Perseverance missions and to have new opportunities to introduce students and the public to the stories of Mars and the people who have dedicated their lives to understanding the Red Planet.

What are some of your research interests?

My research focuses on understanding the sedimentary rock cycle on Mars using the tools of sedimentology and geochemistry. The sedimentary rocks on Mars are somewhat more “primitive” than those on Earth; they are derived from volcanic materials and they have only experienced a small amount of weathering, so we have to really understand the effects of volcanic textures and processes like mineral sorting, and we use any secondary minerals that did form to understand past environments. In my research group, we work in interdisciplinary collaborations so that we can use a wide variety of tools and skills to understand the Martian rocks; currently, we’re adapting physical sedimentology tools for an ancient windblown sandstone on Mars, generating an algorithm to interpret mineralogy from high-resolution geochemistry with the Mars 2020 mission, studying early weathering and sediment transport processes at an analog site in Iceland, and adapting a terrestrial paleoclimate model to work on Mars. One cool application is that understanding the sedimentary processes that occurred ~3.5 billion years ago on a world mostly devoid of life gives us a reference frame for understanding the early Earth, or Earth at different times in its history.

What are some of the most exciting discoveries about Mars in the last year?

The Perseverance rover landed on Mars on February 18, 2021, so the last year has been incredibly exciting in Mars science. Imagine if we’d only ever had reports from 9 geoscientists on Earth, and none of them had traveled further than 40 miles. Each new landing site, and every new instrument, has the potential to overturn long-held assumptions and give us a new perspective on Mars. Right now, we know Mars was a place that had environments suitable for life, but we have not found life in them. So far, Perseverance has shown us beautiful views of a delta that records episodes of slow, classic river deposition into a lake and intervals where significant floods washed boulders into the same lake. The floor of the crater, which we expected might hold lake sediments, instead is a patchily weathered volcanic rock. This is the first mission that has been able to collect samples that will be returned to Earth (in about a decade), so we are carefully collecting samples that will no doubt change our perspective yet again. I personally cannot wait to go look at the rocks washed into the lake in the delta!

Please describe the upcoming course

Description

This class is designed to introduce students to the past, present, and future of Mars Exploration. It focuses on the stories of science and exploration and how they have changed our perspective on the Red Planet time and time again with each new mission and new discovery. The class is designed to be accessible for a wide range of students with no prerequisites.

Learning objectives

Students will learn about the history of exploration of Mars, how each surface mission has developed our scientific understanding of the Red Planet, what discoveries are being made right now, and what to look out for in coming months and years as we get closer to long-term objectives like Mars sample return and possible human exploration. The live sessions allow the class to be catered to students interests, so a wide range of scientific and historical perspectives can be addressed.

Method of delivery

The class is divided into three parts, roughly the “past,” “present,” and “future” of Mars exploration. Each segment has ~2-3 hours of recorded video material in 5-40 minute videos. For each of the three segments, students have 2-3 weeks to watch the material and submit any questions they have, and then we have a live one hour zoom session with me, where I’ll answer any submitted questions and those that come up in discussion live. The recordings are also available for about a month after the last live session.

Cost

Tuition is $250

Link to register: https://glasscock.rice.edu/course?id=36701387

What are some exciting developments to watch out for in the near future?

I definitely recommend following along with the Perseverance (https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/ ) and Curiosity (https://mars.nasa.gov/msl/home/ ) missions. Both rovers are currently traversing into regions where we may find evidence for past life and dramatic environmental changes in Mars history. Over the next several years, Perseverance will also be collecting the first samples that we will return to Earth from Mars, and we hope to have those on Earth by ~2031-2033.

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