The study and exploration of Mars – and this pertains to other planetary systems – is not simply finding what’s “out there,” at least not exclusively. For those who dedicate their lives to such pursuits, there is something more immediate and important involved.
“Mars and other planetary environments just push us to recognize how unique Earth is,” said Kirsten L. Siebach, this year’s AAPG Harrison Schmitt Award winner.
That pursuit, she said, has filled her professional life and fulfilled her personally.
“I love geology as the science of exploring our planet – past, present and future,” she said.
Siebach is an assistant professor at Rice University’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences who calls herself a “Martian geologist” and “outreach enthusiast.”
That exploration requires curiosity, systems thinking and interdisciplinary teams, she said.
“I can’t imagine a more fun field to study,” she added.
Named after Harrison J. Schmitt, former professor and senator of New Mexico and more importantly, for purposes here, the first geologist to walk on the moon – he was part of Apollo 17 — the Award is given to those who have left a mark on the study and application of geology.
Siebach was given the award “In recognition of her sharing her extensive knowledge of Martian sedimentary systems and her unsurpassed skills in conveying the excitement of recent discoveries on Mars far beyond the planetary science community.”
“I am deeply honored to be given an award named after Harrison Schmitt, the only planetary geologist thus far who was brave, adventurous and lucky enough to personally visit an extraterrestrial field site,” said Siebach.
Living on Mars Time
Whether it’s the moon or the future exploration of Mars, she said such bravery, adventure and luck drives us to ask new questions that we might not have thought were important or felt like were already explained if Earth was the only source of information.
“I see Mars as having two big benefits for the study of geology: we can test our ideas about geological systems under different planetary variables (less gravity, no plate tectonics, different atmosphere, etc.), and it contains a rock record older than any we have on Earth, including a more expansive record of the time when life evolved,” she said.
She said she found exploration of the Martian rock record intriguing, both for the pieces that look familiar – some images look just like the western United States – but for the unfamiliar twists, like the near absence of quartz or ripples that sand only makes under a thin atmosphere.
There’s another dynamic to the planet, though, which can seem both insignificant and profound.
Mars is a planet whose daily cycle is similar to that of Earth, but not exactly. Its day – referred to as “sol” – is approximately 39 minutes longer than a day on Earth.
That extra time has to be accounted for.
“A day on Mars is 24 hours and 39 minutes long, so even if you explore that field site by operating a robot for a day at a time from the comfort of your home office, trying to keep up with daily satellite passes returning data to Earth means effectively constant jet lag,” she explained.
Living on “Mars Time,” she wants you to know – something she has tried to do for three-month intervals – is no piece of cake and she doesn’t suggest you try it.
“As much as people might say they want 40 extra minutes in the day, it is not a sustainable way of living on this planet!” said Siebach.
Fortunately, for long-duration missions, scientists operate rovers for a couple days at a time and use collaborators living in a wide range of time zones to improve the ability to communicate with rovers while living in sync with the sun.
“Even after accomplishing the amazing feat of landing a robot on the surface, people still need to tell the rover where to go and what to investigate. The time delay between Earth and Mars is about 15 minutes, so we command the rover for an entire day rather than attempt shorter delayed communications,” she related.
Putting the Pieces Together
To immerse oneself in such a world – a world not of our own – requires someone who sees all the pieces on the board.
Not surprising then that Siebach, who has a doctorate in geology from the California Institute of Technology, is fascinated by putting all those pieces together.
“I love puzzles – jigsaw puzzles, escape rooms, word puzzles, you name it,” Siebach said.
She said the difference between a puzzle on a dining room table and the puzzle of Mars is part perception, part reality.
“Most of the time, it doesn’t feel like we have all the pieces we want to tell a complete story,” she said.
But if we have a fundamental understanding of the pieces we do have (or, for example, the different instruments that have collected data across Mars and each of their findings), it’s not insurmountable.
“We can start with the corners and edges and construct enough of the picture to see what missions, instruments or analysis techniques would be the most influential for our next round of study,” she explained.
She gives credit to her parents for encouraging her inquisitiveness, as well two very important high school teachers: Barbara Wood and Jim Jarvis.
“They encouraged me to think of science as a set of questions that I could find the tools to answer,” she said.
Along the way there was her undergraduate adviser, Ray Arvidson, who introduced her to planetary science, Mars mission operations and science, and demonstrated how to do research, and her graduate and postgraduate advisers, John Grotzinger and Scott McLennan, for helping her become the scientist she is.
And there are those who inspire her every day.
“My students and colleagues at Rice continue to provide fantastic, supportive environments for growth,” she said.
Our perspectives will change the more profound the exploration.
“I think humans are wired to explore, and that unique places and landscapes make us expand our perspective – even if we’ve only explored Mars through the eyes of robots, the stunning pictures make many of us immediately start to ask questions,” she said.
Exploration, On Any World
As for the billion-dollar question of whether we should go to Mars, she is emphatic.
But it’s not just to satiate our curiosity, but to stoke it.
“Yes, with robots and eventually with people – we have questions to answer, questions we haven’t thought to ask, and more to explore,” said Siebach.
And she does some of her best ruminating on the subject when she’s out hiking, exploring her world here. This reminds her of a quote by Werner Herzog: “The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot.”
Even in Texas.
“I don’t live near much topographic relief, but I walk four-to-five miles nearly every day for exercise, social breaks, and stress relief,” she said. “I’m pretty dedicated to getting those 10,000 steps, even in Houston summers. I frequent urban parks and often take pictures as I walk to capture different places, light, flowers and wildlife as seasons change. I think going outside in nature helps me be a more thoughtful and observant scientist, it helps me think more creatively when I’m stuck, and it just makes me happier.”
Siebach – who is currently a member of the science and operations teams for both the Mars 2020 rover Perseverance and the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity and previously worked on the science and engineering teams for the Phoenix Lander and the two Mars Exploration rovers – said that Earth is an amazing system and those who study it have to apply every branch of science and engineering to understand it, even, or especially, if that understanding comes from other planets.