Mastcam-Z at LPSC 2024

by Darian Dixon and Alicia Vaughan

The Mastcam-Z Team is a large group. We have members all over the United States and many overseas as well. While the team is essentially headquartered at Arizona State University, there are team members in Hawaii, New York, Denmark, the UK, Germany, Austria, Canada, and elsewhere. So, most of the time, we collaborate remotely. Recently, however, we got to have an exciting family reunion of sorts. From March 11th-15th many of us convened in The Woodlands, Texas just north of Houston to attend the 2024 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC). LPSC is an annual conference dedicated to all things planetary science. It has been held every year since 1970, with the exception of 2020 when the COVID pandemic prompted its cancellation. The event has its origins in the establishment of the Lunar Science Institute in 1970, founded after being announced in Houston in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In January 1970, the first conference was held: then known as the Apollo 11 Lunar Science Conference. With our exciting missions to the Moon, returned samples, and booming space exploration endeavors, a conference dedicated to discussing and disseminating cutting edge lunar research was a necessity.

These days the conference is held in the posh and spacious setting of the Waterway Marriott Hotel and Convention Center in The Woodlands, TX, but that was not always the case. The first LPSC conferences were held on the Johnson Space Center campus – in the gymnasium. That was well before my time, but I can only imagine that the very latest in lunar science being presented underneath a basketball hoop was an incredible scene. Since then, LPSC has now grown to encompass far more than just lunar exploration. The Lunar Science Institute is now the Lunar and Planetary Institute. Mars, Venus, asteroids, meteorites, other moons, gas giants, comets, dwarf planets, and more joined the party.

This year’s LPSC was an inspiring showcase of the scientific diversity of our field, with sessions focusing on Mars, Venus, Ryugu sample return, preparation for future lunar exploration, icy moons, and a whole lot more. All throughout the week, presentations were given both orally in an auditorium and at the sprawling poster session in the convention center’s largest room. There was an incredibly informative briefing from NASA headquarters about the status of various missions going forward, among other interesting special sessions and lectures. And amidst all the very serious science, I appreciate that LPSC has fostered a fun and informal culture. Everything from the tradition of presentation summaries being written in haiku (there are even awards given for the best ones), more delicious food than one could handle, folks breaking out some of their best and wackiest space attire, and the annual after-poster-session parties, we planetary scientists make the most of this yearly gathering.  

The Mastcam-Z team was present in large numbers, and naturally we had a significant presence at the Mars-related sessions. This offered an opportunity for alums of the Western Washington University Mars crew, that I endearingly call the ‘WWU planetary scientist farm system,’ to gather together. There have been many of us over the years and it was great to reconnect – part of the beauty of LPSC! 

Image 1: Past and present members of the Western Washington University Mars Research Group led by Dr. Melissa Rice. From left to right (top): Amanda Rudolph, Kathleen Hoza, Josh Williams, Max Gabbert, Sammy Theuer, Richard Gwyn (actually a Mercury researcher, not Mars, but we appreciate him). From left to right (bottom): Kristiana Lapo, Brad Garczynski, Darian Dixon. Credit: Kristiana Lapo.

Image 2: Our deputy principal investigator, Justin Maki, is very excited to see cupcakes. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute.

LPSC is invaluable to the Mars science community. Being typically scattered across the globe and having such a wide variety of scientific interests and pursuits, LPSC gives us the opportunity to come together in one space for a whirlwind of presentations advancing our collective body of knowledge. The conference is an especially important venue for broadcasting the latest discoveries in Jezero crater by Perseverance. These presentations help shape and inform the trajectory of Mars exploration.

There was significant focus this year on the recent discoveries made at the Jezero crater ‘Margin Unit,’ a carbonate- and olivine-rich unit along the western crater rim just beyond the western delta. This unit has intrigued scientists for years and now that Perseverance has reached it, we are finally beginning to explore its geology. Perseverance team members presented great updates on the mysterious unit’s chemistry/mineralogy and sedimentology/stratigraphy. These abstracts tell a truly fascinating story about one of the most interesting regions Perseverance has encountered thus far. Be sure to check them out!

The Margin Unit was just one of many topics discussed at the conference. The LPSC official program lists all sessions and presentations along with their abstracts. No matter what your planetary science interest is, there is something in here for you. 

Image 3: LPSC goers attending the NASA headquarters briefing on Tuesday March 12th. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute.

My personal favorite part of LPSC was the evening poster sessions. The large hall where this takes place fits hundreds of presenters. Poster sessions allow you to venture around at your own pace and speak to presenters directly as they show off their hard work and beautiful posters. Good posters are equally artistic and scientific. People take great pride in them, so there’s no shortage of enthusiasm in the room. Mastcam-Z team members had a lot of posters this year. I took the time to stop by many of them to cheer my colleagues on, see their results, and hound them for a small feature in this blog post. Here are some of our Mastcam-Z finest and a bit about their work and thoughts on LPSC.

Sammy Theuer (Western Washington University)

Image 4: Sammy Theuer discussing her research with Curiosity and Perseverance science team member Dr. Michelle Minitti. Credit: Darian Dixon

Sammy is a Master’s student at Western Washington University and Mastcam-Z science team student collaborator. I asked Sammy about her research and her thoughts on LPSC:

“I am researching coated Hawaiian basalts as analogs to Mars and trying to determine how coatings on the basalts change their spectral photometric behavior. The goal is to understand how these effects might be useful for better spectral interpretations of Mars rocks.

I feel the value of LPSC is having a reason to network and see others in person. Often Mars work is very remote; it is good to see other people in person and talk about our research and the broader community. I’ve enjoyed talking to people in lunar work because of the similarities in topics and techniques.”

When asked if she had any advice for aspiring planetary scientists, Sammy said: 

“Don’t be afraid to Google and cold email if someone/something sounds interesting. Just reach out! They won’t ignore you, just do it.”

Considering my entire Mars science career started with me sending a cold email, I strongly echo this advice 🙂

Kristiana Lapo and Max Gabbert (Western Washington University)

Image 5: WWU research associates Kristiana Lapo (left) and Max Gabbert (right) stand in front of their work conducted in the WWU Reflectance Lab. Credit: Darian Dixon

Kristiana and Max are research associates at Western Washington University and were also Master’s students there. They participate in Mastcam-Z downlink operations and manage Prof. Melissa Rice’s Western Reflectance Lab. Speaking about their research, this is what they shared:

Max: “I am researching how iron and silica coatings affect the spectral signature of rocks and sediments that are similar to those found on the Martian surface. Using Mars analogs allows us to better understand what we see with the Mastcam-Z instrument on the Perseverance rover. For this project, I crushed an olivine-rich rock into batches of sand, which I tumbled to create different grain angularities. Then, I coated the sand grains to mimic aqueous alteration and weathering on Mars and collected multispectral data and scanning electron microscope images.”

Kristiana: “Spectra are an important tool in remote sensing that provide insight into the minerals present on planetary surfaces, like the surface of Mars. Perseverance is currently exploring the “Margin Unit”, a carbonate-rich unit near the rim of Jezero Crater, Mars that represents a change in mineralogy from the rover’s landing site on the Crater Floor where the mineral olivine is abundant. To the “eyes” of Perseverance, a set of spectral cameras called Mastcam-Z, the iron carbonates of the Margin Unit and the olivines of the Crater Floor look very similar. In an effort to help the scientists of Perseverance differentiate between the two minerals in Mastcam-Z data, this study looks at spectra of the minerals olivine and siderite, an iron carbonate, collected in laboratories on Earth. This Earth-based data suggests that olivine and siderite can be told apart through slight differences in spectra shape, but some variants of siderite are difficult to tell apart from iron oxides, which are also abundant on the surface of Mars – this suggests that iron carbonates like siderite may occasionally be misidentified as other minerals. Future work includes testing a different quantitative tool to better distinguish between olivine and siderite.”

Kristiana also had this advice for future planetary scientists:

“There are a lot of ways into planetary science. We need engineers to build the spacecraft, scientists to interpret the data, writers and artists to communicate to the public, and folks in policy to make sure we have funding. Planetary science isn’t just one thing.”

Jorge Núñes (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory)

Jorge Núñez is a senior planetary scientist and astrobiologist in the Space Exploration Sector at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). He had this to say about some of his recent work:

“We found the sedimentary rocks in the delta front and upper fan are spectrally diverse with rocks in the upper fan appearing less oxidized, with less Fe-oxide present, than in rocks in the delta front. Similarly, the lower delta deposits are dominated by sulfate minerals, while the upper fan is dominated by carbonate minerals. These deposits preserve a record of changing fluid chemistry and conditions, especially oxidation conditions, during deposition where conditions in the Jezero crater transitioned from an acidic hypersaline environment in the lower delta to a more neutral to alkaline environment in the upper fan. They preserve a record of an early habitable environment on Mars that may have been favorable for the preservation of potential signatures of past life on Mars.”

Image 6: Jorge showing me his poster and talking through some of the multispectral imagery taken by Mastcam-Z of Jezero Crater delta deposits. Credit: Darian Dixon

Alicia Vaughan (Apogee Engineering, LLC)

Alicia Vaughan is a Mastcam-Z Co-Investigator and had this to say about LPSC:

“LPSC is a wonderful opportunity to catch up with colleagues and old friends. On Mars 2020, the science team works on operations together every day virtually, so I really enjoy having the in-person connections to folks I work with all the time. I was able to discuss collaborative scientific efforts with team members, and meet others in person (like Darian!) for the first time. Also, I feel re-energized and inspired after attending LPSC. On the last day, I took the evening to summarize my reflections – what I learned, and what and who I will be following up on, etc. It’s good stuff!”

Image 7: Alicia Vaughan with her poster on the multispectral properties, textures, and possible origins of the boulders of the Upper Fan at Jezero crater. Credit: Darian Dixon