Visualising Mars: making sampling simpler for the Mars 2020 mission

For scientists working on the Mars 2020 mission, time is a precious resource. Researchers and analysts will be working with finite resources and over unimaginably long distances to carry out investigations. When information is relayed back from Mars, the team will have very limited time to interpret it and decide on a course of action.

Dr David Flannery and Dr Selen Türkay, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology, have developed new data visualisation software that will make this decision making easier.

Looking beneath the surface

The Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (also known as PIXL) is a rock-analysing machine that’s going to Mars.

More scientifically, PIXL is an X-ray spectrometer that will be mounted on the Mars 2020 rover. Developed by QUT alumnus and NASA principal investigator Dr Abigail Allwood, PIXL uses X-ray technology to measure geological samples in the Martian environment. This helps the team at NASA decide which samples to collect.

Artist’s depiction of the Mars 2020 rover.

PIXL’s time is limited, though — as is the volume of samples the team can bring back to Earth.

Understanding the composition of the samples is key. Until now, scientists have been using multiple types of software to interpret the data. They needed an easier way to interpret and understand the Martian landscape. This is where Drs Flannery and Türkay step in.

Getting a clearer picture

Drs Flannery and Türkay collaborated on new data visualisation software that converts PIXL’s X-ray spectrometry into easily digestible visual representations.

At a glance, scientists will be able to identify different chemical and mineral compounds inside the rock that PIXL’s investigating. If it contains anything interesting, they can ask the rover to take a sample to send back to Earth for further analysis.

“There’s a lot of use of colour as well as scientific notations to differentiate and identify different elements in the samples,” explained Dr Türkay.

“The team can look at the numbers and look at the image itself, and see where there are colours that align with the materials they’re hoping to find on Mars. Having all those tools in one piece of software helps scientists get where they want in much less time.”

Making software that works

Streamlining and simplifying software can make a huge difference to efficiency, but designing something that works in practice can be complicated.

“The challenge is that scientists are working with data and using four or five different types of software to get the information they need,” said Dr Türkay.

“So, we’re putting all the tools they need together — and hopefully more — into one piece of software.”

Dr Selen Türkay (third from left) with PIXL chief investigator Abigail Allwood (centre) and other members of the PIXL and data visualisation software teams.

Working with scientists in the field gave Dr Türkay the understanding of the use case for developing such a useful and valuable tool.

Because of the time and cost associated with planning Mars rover operations, analysis must happen very quickly, according to Dr Flannery.

“Often we’re in a situation where the data comes back and we have an hour or maybe only 20 minutes to analyse it and figure out if we got what we wanted, whether we want to sample this rock on Mars, or if we want to move on,” Dr Flannery explained.

“We don’t want the rover to be sitting there and doing nothing at any time. We want to get the data back to Earth, analysed, and a whole new set of commands back in a single day.”

The PIXL team constructed long decision trees to help streamline the decision-making process for maximum efficiency.

The analytical process has to align with satellites orbiting Mars that are used for communication relays, as well as the very earthly logistics of everyone’s work schedules across multiple time zones.

The size of the data also presents a challenge.

“These instruments create huge data sets, so it’s challenging to interpret. The software allows us to access these large data sets through a browser, and then visualise them in various ways,” Dr Flannery said.

Collaboration for better knowledge

Neither Dr Flannery nor Dr Türkay began as space enthusiasts, although they’re certainly well-versed in it now.

Dr Flannery got his start as a geologist looking at ancient rock formations in regional Australia.

“I thought my research might be useful for looking at similarly-aged rocks on Mars.”

“I’m really interested in the very early geological record. I want to know how the Earth was formed and how we came to be here,” said Dr Flannery.

From geologist to astrobiologist: Dr David Flannery.

After studying Earth’s early rock record, he became a planetary scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he’s helped build instruments for Mars rovers. He’s now a long-term planner for the Mars 2020 mission, and co-investigator for the PIXL instrument, making a career change from geologist to astrobiologist.

Dr Türkay is a learning scientist and mathematician.

“My field is human-computer interaction: basically, how humans interact with interfaces, and how we can design them so it will be more intuitive and effective,” she explained.

She spent three months embedded in JPL to understand the needs of scientists to inform the user interface and functionality of the visualisation software.

Mission to Jezero

The Mars 2020 rover will be focused on the Jezero crater, which was once thought to be a lake. Because there was water, the team thinks, there may have been living organisms, according to Dr Flannery.

“One of the most obvious things we’re looking for is life. If we find anything that looks prospective in terms of evidence for past life in this lake deposit, we’ll probably want to take a sample or make more measurements.

“This is the first mission since Viking that’s specifically looking for life,” Dr Flannery said.

Those signs of life might be smaller and older than Hollywood would have us believe.

“We’re probably not going to find a bone,” Dr Flannery joked.

“We’ll be looking for possible microbial biosignatures, and we can then analyse the chemistry of these features to learn more about whether Mars once supported life. At the moment, Mars is cold and dry and lifeless. But we see these features on the surface [at Jezero] that have been generated by water.

“For example, there’s a big channel, a sort of valley that seems to have been carved by water leading into Jezero, and another leading out of it into what might have been a giant ocean. So, at some time in the past Mars was much warmer and there was liquid water moving around.”

The mission is critical to understanding how the world as we know it came to be. “Mars is the best opportunity in my lifetime to seek a second origin of life,” Dr Flannery said.

The future is virtual

Dr Türkay would like to continue working with the software she’s already developed. Based on her expertise in computer-human interaction, this could mean exploring potential use for virtual and augmented reality.

“My research area is in immersive reality,” she explained. “Right now, we’re working on a proposal to create an immersive reality application to visualise all this complex data for scientists to make sense of it in situ.

“Scientists would be able to look at the data not only on a flat screen, but also look around the virtual environment through their embodied avatars, interact with digital artefacts, take measurements, come up with hypotheses, and communicate with each other all in one interface.”

This means that a scientist standing in a lab in Australia, for example, would be able to enter a virtual Martian landscape, see the chemical and mineral makeup of the surrounding terrain, communicate this in real time to scientists at NASA, and collaboratively identify hot spots to investigate and sample.

Next steps for space exploration

Dr Flannery says he wants to see a bigger Australian contribution to space exploration.

“We were a major player in the 1960s. We were the third country after America and Russia to put a satellite into orbit from our own territory — the first and last Australian satellite ever launched from Australian territory,” Dr Flannery said.

He hopes that the launch of the Australian Space Agency in 2018 heralded a new generation of Australian scientists researching in the field.

“Australia has a lot to offer research in this area. We have the oldest rocks and the best Mars analogues,” he said. “We also have many active research groups that are currently underappreciated and underfunded.”

As for the possibility of going to Mars, neither researcher was particularly keen.

“I think the enthusiasm people have for moving to Mars would peter out when they realise it’s a pretty crummy place to live,” Dr Flannery said.

Dr Türkay said she would only visit Mars if she could return to Earth.

“I also have claustrophobia! So, being in a space shuttle is not ideal. But VR is being used for therapeutic purposes now, so maybe I can use it to combat my fear.”

For now, both scientists hope to continue their research here on Earth.

More information

Find out more about Dr David Flannery

Find out more about Dr Selen Türkay

Explore more research at QUT’s Science and Engineering Faculty

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