Interview: Dr Adrian Brown, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Scientist

Conceptual image depicting the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in an elliptical low-planet orbit around Mars (NASA)

In my capacity as Mars Foundation Communications Officer, I was asked to approach one of the mission scientists working with The Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) instrument on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The Foundation has an acute interest in CRISM as its main task is to look for water (past and present) and certain minerals on the Martian surface. We are currently investigating Mars settlement designs, so any indication about the location of these quantities will be of huge interest to us (especially as our “Hillside Settlement” will require colonists to use local materials when and where possible). In an enlightening interview, SETI Institute principal investigator Dr Adrian Brown detailed some of the important discoveries to come out of CRISM and how it may be of use to future colonists…

One of the critical factors influencing our future on the Red Planet is water. Of course this also has some impact on the probability of finding life on Mars, but as I am mainly interested in Mars settlement design, I kept our interview along these lines. Dr Adrian Brown kindly spent some time answering my questions focusing around the location of water presently being measured on Mars. In particular, I was interested in how much water is held in the polar caps and how water could be extracted from the atmosphere.

In the article posted on Saturday, Dr Brown detailed just how much water we can expect to find in the Mars poles. It would seem that the north polar region has a huge quantity of the stuff in the form of water ice. According to Adrian’s estimate, the north pole can be thought of as a disk of near-pure water ice (including dirt from dust and other impurities) with a diameter of about 1000 km (620 miles) with a depth of 3 km (1.9 miles); that’s a staggering volume of 2.35 million cubic kilometres – enough water to cover the continental US to a depth of over 200 meters.

The southern ice cap is a different story. It holds a small disk of water ice (300 kilometers in diameter), below a thin layer of CO2 ice (dry ice). Although small, this ice cap reaches 2 km (1.24 miles) in height, and ignoring the CO2 and other impurities, there’s about 140 thousand cubic km of pure water, enough to cover the continental US to a depth of 14 meters. To be honest, these figures surprised me. If we could set up camp near these huge regions of ice, we stand a good chance of mining the stuff and then melting it.

He also outlined the possibilities of heating permafrost layers for colonists to extract melt water to the surface. Dr Brown then talked about the water vapour and water ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere – colonists could condense this water in useable quantities. The CRISM instrument has also been used to re-write the Mars history books. There are quantities of kaolinite, talc and hydrated silica – impossible to detect before the MRO began transmitting data in 2006.

But the most inspiring part of the interview was at the end when he detailed what he’d most like to see if he had the opportunity to travel to this ultimate destination:

Of course I would love to travel to Mars, most of all to go to the polar regions and observe them with my own eyes. If I could actually go to the surface of Mars to investigate the fascinating geology of Nili Fossae and Valles Marineris, that would be so awesome. And to visit a gully site and dig behind it to try and find its source… and to witness the cold volcanoes of mud that erupt in the polar cryptic region during springtime… to go and understand these things that have us puzzled at the moment would be so amazing… and of course more questions would be raised, more geological problems unearthed, and the cycle of understanding the Red Planet would continue.” – Dr Adrian Brown, Mars Foundation interview (May 3rd, 2008).

To read the whole article, visit The Mars Foundation article with more details on CRISM, Dr Adrian Brown and settling on Mars…

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