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Development of Raman Spectroscopy for Mars: an inter-disciplinary approach

   Department of Geography

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  Dr A Carr  No more applications being accepted

About the Project

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The purpose of this PhD is to support the development of instrumentation for forthcoming Mars missions. ExoMars in particular will be equipped with a miniature Raman Laser spectrometer (RLS), designed to detect organic biomarkers, particularly UV-protective pigments, and their inorganic matrix. This project will test and develop these instruments using terrestrial Mars analogues from hyper-arid deserts. Several desert environments have been proposed as “Mars analogues” (Fairén et al., 2010, Hutchinson et al., 2014). These provide key opportunities to develop and test new instrumentation designed to detect life (or its remains) on planetary surfaces (Navarro-Gonzalez et al., 2003; Edwards et al., 2012). Hyper-arid environments also allow us to test the limits of life on Earth via an understanding of the habits of extremophile organisms and the functioning of the soil C and N cycles under extreme aridity.

Aims and Objectives
A key goal of this PhD is to test flight-equivalent RLS instruments in desert settings in order to refine instrument design and to provide vital assistance for future sampling and interpretation of RLS data on the Martian surface. The project will enhance the diversity of analogue materials and data available for RLS testing and application and directly compare RLS data with analytical approaches capable of characterising low concentrations of OM. It also seeks to refine our understanding of the molecular composition and degradation/preservation mechanisms of organic matter in hyper-arid environments.

This interdisciplinary project will involve both fieldwork and laboratory analysis and will focus on linking RLS data with assays of organic matter composition using several lab-based methods. It is anticipated that living (or dead, but preserved) organic matter on Mars will be associated with micro-environments protected from UV radiation and/or associated with substrates providing potential for organo-mineral interaction. RLS is capable of spatially discrete analysis and able to identify the spectral signatures of various organic functional groups and the inorganic matrix. We have identified suitable sites in southern Africa and the Mojave Desert and will build on a dual method (RLS & GC/MS) approach, which we have so far applied to a specific rock varnish analogue (e.g. Malherbe et al. 2015).

Training and skills
The student on this project will attain in a high level of competence in several cutting-edge analytical techniques. The work will be carried out in both the Environmental Stable Isotope Laboratory in the department of Geography and the Space Research Centre in the department of Physics and Astronomy. Techniques will variously include solvent extraction and purification, GC/MS (liquid) analysis, pyrolysis-GC/MS (solid sample), solid-phase micro-extraction (SPME), compound-specific stable isotope analysis, portable (including field-based) RLS measurement and micro-RLS measurement. The student will obtain further training in mass spectrometry, as well as experience of field sampling

The Supervisory Team
This PhD is an interdisciplinary project co supervised by staff in the department of Geography and the Space Research Centre. The supervisory team have a diverse range of backgrounds, spanning Geography and Environmental science (Carr), organic geochemistry (Boom), space science and instrumentation (Ingley and Hutchinson).

Funding Notes

The studentship is available for full-time registration and all tuition fees for the three year period will be covered, together with an annual tax-free stipend of £14,296. The successful applicant will receive an annual allowance of up to £1000 towards travel and conferences. Funds are also in place for relevant international field campaigns.


Edwards, H.G.M. et al., 2012. Raman spectroscopy and the search for life signatures in the ExoMars Mission. International Journal of Astrobiology 11, 269-278
Fairén, A.G. et al. 2010. Astrobiology through the ages of Mars: the study of terrestrial analogues to understand the habitability of Mars. Astrobiology 10, 821
Ewing, S. et al. 2006. A threshold in soil formation at Earth’s arid–hyperarid transition. Geochemica et Cosmochimica Acta 70, 5293-5322
Hutchinson, I.B. et al., 2014. Potential for analysis of carbonaceous matter on Mars using Raman spectroscopy. Planetary & Space Science 103, 184-190
Malherbe C. et al. 2015. Bio-geological analysis of desert varnish using portable Raman Spectroscopy. Astrobiology 15 (6) 442-452
Navarro-Gonzalez R. et al. 2003. Mars-like soils in the Atacama Desert, Chile and the dry limit of microbial life. Science 302, 1018
Navarro-Gonzalez et al., 2006. The limitations on organic detection in Mars-like soils and their implications for the Viking results. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 103,16089–16094
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