The Rocky Road of Experimental Planetary Science

Carl Sagan once said that if you wish to build a Mars chamber from scratch, you must first invent the universe. Ok, maybe he was talking about apple pies, but same thing. [1]

And inventing the universe is what it seems like we’ve been doing the last few weeks. “Simulating the Martian atmosphere” is a much more complex process than just throwing some CO2 into a near-vacuum.

Our “to-do” list is constantly being added to. The UV light needs to be ordered. A cooling system needs to be developed so the light doesn’t overheat. The seal for the chamber needs to be completely airtight to maintain a vacuum, so that condensation doesn’t occur on the cooling system. Wires need to be acquired and soldered in the proper order to provide power to the cooling system. The workshop guys need to be back from vacation to solder the wires.

Most of our work has been on the parts in the box below. It’s the removable sample holder, rigged up with the UV light and Peltier cooling elements to prevent overheating. Since this is where we’ll be putting the magnetite, it’s one of the most precise and crucial parts to get right.


On the experimental side of planetary science, there’s a lot that can go wrong. Patching up our beloved chamber has taken much improvisation and recycling of parts, and there are times when it feels like we’re just putting band-aids on top of band-aids. But much of the beauty in science comes from the attention to minute details to ensure that our experiment is as close of an approximation to Mars as possible. The process of rigor might be riddled with wrenches and soldering guns, but the end result is actually quite elegant.

I’m looking forward to finally starting our first experiment tomorrow.


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