My research is broadly concerned with understanding the evolution of the terrestrial planets and icy moons. I’m interested in how geological processes have shaped the solid surfaces visible today, and in particular the role that water has played throughout the history of Mars.
- The history of water on Mars
- Fluvial geomorphology, sedimentology and geochemistry
- Periglacial processes at high and low latitudes
- Mechanical properties of hydrated minerals and salt-damaged rocks
- Recent climate change
- Stereo-derived DTM generation
- Corona-related volcanism
- Small-scale volcanism and global resurfacing and heat flow
- Upper crustal magmatic and tectonic processes at radially-fractured centres
- Low mass and cost imaging drop probes for surface studies
- Characterisation of landing sites for future missions
- MoonZoo: citizen science and crater age-dating
- The internal structure and thermal evolution of Titan
- Small-scale mud volcanism on TItan
- Micro-penetrators for in-situ exploration of Europa
I use techniques from different disciplines to address key questions in planetary science that can only be answered with a cross-disciplinary approach. By studying the key processes that affect the evolution of different planetary bodies such as Venus, the Moon, Mars and Titan, my research addresses the majority of the recorded history of the solar system.
Getting my hands dirty
Most of my experiments involve ice, or icy materials, so I spend a lot of time in the ice physics lab in Earth Sciences at UCL. Here I can prepare samples to my heart’s content, without worrying about accidental melting, although this does invariably mean wearing a big green balaclava most of the day.
I’m interested in planetary ices, so this involves ice at low temperatures (and high pressures for icy moon interiors), and hydrated and hydrous minerals. I’m particularly interested in hydrated sulfate minerals, both on Mars and in the icy moons. My experiments can be split onto two main categories: mechanical properties and diffusion.
The results of these experiments feed directly back into the modelling, and are constrained by observations.
The goal of these experiments is to better understand the mechanical properties of materials that occur on mars and the icy moons. I use three main ways of conducting these experiments, by using equipment here at ucl, and also at the rutherford appleton laboratory. most of my time at the moment is spent preparing samples and setting up the uniaxial and triaxial rigs for running low-temperature experiments.
The main aim of using the triaxial deformation cells is to better understand the roles that different parameters such as temperature, pressure, grain size and growth and strain rate have on the rheology of ice and other condensed volatile materials. Have a look at the paper by Durham and Stern (2001) for a nice introduction to the complexities of ice rheology.
The uniaxial cell is our workhorse, and with the environmental chamber fitted, is capable of very low temperatures. The main advantage of this equipment is the ability to perform cyclic loading tests in order to quantify the evolution of the elastic moduli, while also monitoring the acoustic emission.
The goal of these experiments is to determine the rate of diffusive exchange between the surface and atmosphere of mars. I’m particularly interested in understanding the exchange of water vapour, and how the rate of diffusion has changed over time. It is the rate of diffusion that controls whether the martian surface and atmosphere are in equilibrium at timescales ranging from tens of thousands, to hundreds of millions of years.
During my current fellowship I have designed and built the vacuum system and the monitoring set-up, so that I can measure the mass, temperature, and humidity of four different samples at the same time. This method means that I can carry out four simultaneous experiments for a single pump-down, which comes in handy. The kit is working well and has been calibrated at room temperature, and I’m currently running tests looking at the low-pressure-driven precipitation of sulfates, and whether it (1) causes significant rock damage, and (2) causes a significant changes in the diffusion coefficient.
Have a look at my publications page for details of experiments, there should be more there in the future.
Of the theoretical kind
In addition to experiments and in situ and remote sensing observations, I also develop and use models for understanding planetary evolution.
These models vary greatly depending on the problem being addressed. ranging from modelling the possible magma overpressure beneath radially-fractured centres on Venus, to looking at the internal structure and thermal evolution of Titan over 4 billion years, to modelling the combined topographic pumping of groundwater and the resulting evaporation-driven crystallization in canyons on Mars.
For my postdoc, I spent a fair amount of time modelling the behaviour of icy moons. working closely with Dominic Fortes, I worked on the possibility of mud volcanoes on Titan, predicted explosive volcanism to be widespread on Titan, and determined whether an ammonium sulfate ocean can survive inside titan to the present day. All these papers can be found on my publications page.
For my fellowship I have been incorporating experimental results into models of the martian surface and near sub-surface. I’ve looked at the strength of hydrated sulfate minerals as a function of depth, and predicted the topographic pumping and associated groundwater upwelling in canyons on Mars both with and without a large central mound. At the moment I’m interested in looking at the diffusive exhchange between the surface and atmosphere, and particularly the role that hydrated minerals might have in changing this process. Again, more details on my publications page.
Synthesis of the experimental and theoretical studies can only be achieved by application to features visible today on the surfaces. To this end, I use data sets from different missions and instruments that employ visible and near-infrared wavelengths to determine how different processes have affected the surface of Mars and over what time scales.
Specific techniques include combining high-resolution stereo digital terrain models (HiRISE, CTX, MOC) with near-IR spectroscopy, and the analysis of in situ rover data, to understand the evolution of features on Mars that demonstrate the behaviour predicted by the experiments and modelling, and vice versa. Fundamental to this method is understanding the relative and absolute timing of changes in the geological record, garnered from crater count studies.
At the heart of this approach is the use of GIS environment, and adapting terrestrial techniques, software and experience for use with planetary data. This means taking the data from the PDS, processing them (usually) using ISIS and also SocetSet, and then importing into ArcGISr or ENVI to begin work.
I’ve also recently been making DTMs from HiRISE and CTX stereo images. Some of these DTMs have been animated by Doug Ellison, and you can see some of those results at his youtube channel. I particularly urge you to have a look at the pathfinder animation below – we were pretty chuffed with the results!
I’m currently funded by the UK space agency, on an Aurora cross-disciplinary fellowship scheme, which was previously run by STFC. There are more details about the results of this work on my publications page and academic CV.
- 2016 £347k PI STFC Consolidated Grant 3 Years
Determining the Source Locations of Martian Meteorites: Non-Linear Unmixing Models in the VNIR
- 2016 £10k PI STFC Small Public Engagment Grant 18 Months
Space 3D: A Pilot Study for Low-Cost Virtual Reality Space Exploration and Learning
- 2014 £244k PI UKSA Aurora Standard Grant 3 Years
Identification and Analysis of Mars Landing Sites: ExoMars 2018 and Beyond
- 2012 £309k PI UKSA Aurora Research Fellowship 5 Years
Surface-atmosphere exchange and the history of water on Mars
- 2011 £85k PI UKSA Aurora Fellowship Extension 1 Year
Experimental and theoretical studies of Martian ice and hydrates
- 2010 £77k Co-I UKSA 3.5 Years
HiSCI: A High Resolution Stereo Colour Imager for the 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter
- 2008 £290k PI STFC Aurora Research Fellowship 3 Years
Experimental and theoretical studies of Martian ice and hydrates
- 2008 £2k PI RAS 10 weeks
Characterisation of single crystal and polycrystal specimens of MgSO4.11H2O (meridianiite)
- 2008 £5k Co-PI UCL Futures 1 Year
Conservation of Images from the Regional Planetary Image Facility
- 2007 £20k Co-I PPARC 6 months
Venus Entry Probe mission – Definition of science case for surface imaging from small probes