Martian rock-collection tests take place near Enefit’s property

Similarities to possible environments on Mars brought NASA researchers to the southern Uintah Basin in late October to conduct experiments for collecting geologic samples during a planned mission to the red planet in 2020.


A site near Enefit’s property near Evacuation Creek was selected because of sedimentary rock formations left by ancient lakes that contain fossils of ancient microorganisms. Sites on Mars may share similarities to this remote part of the Utah landscape, making it perfect for conducting tests about how a remotely controlled landing vehicle, or rover, will look for and collect Martian rock samples.


Led by principal investigator R. Aileen Yingst of the Planetary Science Institute, the work is part of the GeoHeuristic Operational Strategies Tests – GHOST – which has conducted similar tests at other sites on Earth and the Moon. Partnering with Michael Vanden Berg and Tom Chidsey from the Utah Geological Survey, the science team tested rover operations protocols to determine best practices for a planned 2020 mission to Mars to collect samples and bring them back to Earth.


The team tested two scenarios. In the first scenario, the rover continually moves forward to seek samples and doesn’t backtrack – the method typically used on Mars by the two NASA Mars Exploration Rovers and the Mars Science Laboratory. The second method, called a “walkabout-first” scenario, sends the rover over the same ground at least twice, first to gain context of the overall area and then again to do more in-depth science in sub-locations that appear promising.


To conduct their tests, the rover science teams arrived at the field location without knowledge of the specific site geology. Data about the environment were collected by graduate students simulating the work of a rover. This information was provided to the science teams, who were charged with assessing the details about the geological contents of the environment. The team’s hypotheses were then compared with data collected from the site using common Earth-based geologic field methods.


Lessons learned during these exercises help improve efficiency and scientific results for the eventual exploration of Mars and other distant worlds.