As we emerge from nearly two years of restricted travel, Gareth Davies (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) gives an update on Europlanet’s Transnational Access programme, which provides free access to facilities and field sites around the world.
Read article in the fully formatted PDF of the Europlanet Magazine.
Tansnational Access (TA) is a cornerstone of all research infrastructure projects funded by the European Commission. By enabling researchers from one country to visit facilities in another, with all travel and service costs covered, the Commission aims to maximise the efficiency and quality of science produced, simultaneously bridging the gap between highly developed and lesser-developed regions, as well as supporting international collaboration and the training of the next generation of researchers.
Europlanet’s TA programme dates back to 2009, initially offering free access to five planetary analogue field sites – places on Earth that resemble environments found on other planetary bodies – and eleven state-of-the art laboratories. The programme has evolved and expanded over the past 13 years to include seven field sites and over 40 laboratories spread across four continents, providing a rich resource for planetary scientists and engineers to draw on, and supporting research on topics as diverse as the interior of Venus and the atmospheres of icy moons.
New Solutions for a Changing World
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on scientific research in many ways over the past two years, and Europlanet’s TA programme has been no exception. Europlanet’s most ambitious project to date, the Europlanet 2024 Research Infrastructure (RI), received €10 million funding from the European Commission with the aim of supporting over 200 TA visits between 2020 and 2024. Almost 120 TA visits have been approved since the project launched in February last year but, to date (late 2021), only about 20 TA visits have been fully completed. The good news is that many of the 40-plus facilities have set up mechanisms to conduct virtual visits, and more than 10 TA visits are now planned per month. However, it is likely that almost another year will be needed to catch up on the backlog. This is because most of the facilities involved in the TA programme have many commitments in addition to TA visits and these will, in some cases, need to take priority.
The next full TA call for applications has, therefore, been postponed and is currently scheduled for late 2022. Nonetheless, Europlanet 2024 RI’s TA management team recognises that research can move quickly and many members of our community work to fixed deadlines. In particular, younger scientists may require a research visit to complete their project and so could suffer if their contracts come to an end before the next opportunity to apply for a TA call. This has been the driving force for us to introduce a ‘Fast Track TA’ programme over the next year, until the normal TA calls are able to resume.
The Fast Track TA application procedure remains similar to past TA calls and the peer-review process, managed by the European Science Foundation, will continue to find external reviewers with the required expertise to assess anonymous proposals. Not all facilities are included in the Fast Track TA calls due to high demand and the existing backlogs but, encouragingly, most field sites are open for applications. These include new planetary analogues in the high Andes that offer dry cold environments in the Puna region, and the much wetter regions in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. All Fast Track TA applications will have strict requirements for a detailed implementation plan, to be drawn up in collaboration with the proposed facility host, to facilitate the completion of TA visits in 2022.
The other main innovation since the onset of the pandemic has been the development of virtual TA visits. While there are clear disadvantages to virtual visits, in that training opportunities, personal relationships, collaborations and synergies cannot be as fully developed, in many cases virtual visits are proving highly successful. The benefits include reducing the amount of travel and carbon footprints, as well as opening up access to members of our community that cannot travel for physical reasons or who have caring responsibilities. The first Fast Track TA call closed on 3 November 2021, and the 27 eligible applications submitted are currently under review. The next Fast Track call is scheduled to open in late February 2022.
Despite all the challenges over the past two years, the diverse science that is supported by Europlanet’s TA programme has continued to result in high-impact publications and conference presentations, and to spark new collaborations (page 40).
Here, we find out about the experiences of some of the researchers that have taken part in recent physical or virtual visits to laboratories and field si es through the Europlanet 2024 RI TA programme.
Going with the Flow in Mars Conditions
Lonneke Roelofs (Utrecht University, Netherlands), visited the Mars Chamber at the Open University, UK, from 29 September – 6 October 2021.
Like similar systems on Earth, martian gullies are found on steep slopes, with branched ‘alcoves’ at the top funneling into narrow channels that lead to fan-shaped deltas at the base. Suggestions for the formation of these features include the action of liquid water and brines, the effects of sublimating carbon dioxide ice, or a combination of these processes.
Recent activity on Mars, and detections of new flow deposits, have shifted the leading hypothesis from water-based flows to carbon dioxide-driven flows, as it is hard to reconcile present activity with the low availability of atmospheric water under today’s martian conditions. However, direct observations of flows driven by sublimating carbon dioxide on the surface of Mars are nonexistent, and our knowledge of carbon dioxide-driven flows under martian conditions remains limited.
With our TA research visit to the Mars Chamber at the Open University in the UK, we aimed to start deciphering how sublimating carbon dioxide could affect mass-flow dynamics and deposits in martian gully systems. We wanted to specify to what degree and in what quantities the sublimation of carbon dioxide ice could induce fluid mass flows in present-day martian gullies.
During the first two days of our visit, we connected and inserted a flume set-up, built at Utrecht University, into the Mars Chamber. After a few days of fixing some electrical and mechanical problems, we did something no one else has ever done before: we created the first carbon dioxide-driven granular flow under martian atmospheric conditions.
During the rest of our visit, we performed 126 experiments, with varying ratios of carbon dioxide to sediment, at varying slope angles and with different types of sediment. With the results of all these variations, we will be able to better understand carbon dioxide-driven flows, constrain the environments and locations where they can occur on Mars and, ultimately, better understand the processes that shape the surface of Mars today.
In the Land of the Dust Devils
Daniel Toledo and Victor Apestigue (Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeroespacial (INTA), Spain) visited the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans in Botswana from 29 September – 6 October 2021 to study how dust is lifted into the air.
For our investigation, we used the spare units of the Radiation and Dust Sensor (RDS) from the NASA Mars 2020 mission and the Sun Irradiance Sensor (SIS) from the ExoMars 2022 mission, which are designed to study dust carried in the atmosphere of Mars by measuring how sunlight is scattered by the dust particles.
As well as giving information about the properties of airborne dust, these instruments are also sensitive to the presence of dust devils – swirling columns of sand and dust that are a common feature of desert areas on Mars and on Earth. RDS and SIS can detect the changes over time in the sky-brightness produced by a dust devil, and this offers a unique opportunity for monitoring and studying such events during the Mars 2020 and ExoMars 2022 missions. However, to be able to characterise and interpret dust devil observations on Mars, we first need to understand how dust devils affect SIS and RDS signals by thoroughly testing and evaluating the instruments in Mars-like conditions on Earth.
To achieve this goal, we conducted a TA field campaign in the southern part of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, in the Pan near Mopipi town. This location is characterised by frequent dust devils and conditions that promote the lifting of high levels of aerosols (dust and particles) into the atmosphere. Each day of the campaign, we set up RDS and SIS at two different locations from sunrise to sunset, separated by about 25m, along with two cameras to record panoramic videos during the campaign period, and a weather station to perform measurements of pressure, wind direction and intensity, temperature and relative humidity. We also set up a radiometer to measure how much light was absorbed by the dust at different wavelengths.
The objective of having the two main instruments at two different locations was to observe the dust lifting events from different perspectives. During the campaign, we observed multiple dust devils and at least ten dust lifting events produced by wind gusts. For each dust lifting event we recorded the dust devil distance, size, duration and direction by marking out concentric circles with radii of 25, 50, 75, 100, 125 and 150m on the ground. This information, along with the videos from the cameras, helped us to establish the amount of dust lifted by the dust devil, as well as the distances from the instruments. The data collected for each event was key to establish the RDS and SIS capabilities for dust lifting characterisation on Mars.
The first two days of the campaign were characterised by high dust-loading conditions and frequent formations of dust lifting events produced by dust devils or wind gusts.
During these two days, each dust lifting event registered by the cameras was also detected by RDS and SIS, with signals showing a sharp peak at the time when the event passed within the sensors’ field of view. Preliminary analysis suggests that we can infer from RDS and SIS signals the difference between dust lifting events produced by dust devils and those produced by wind gusts – an important result for the observations on Mars.
The third day of the campaign had to be cancelled due to rain. This resulted in lower dust-loading conditions in the following days, and thus the amount of dust lifted by vortices or wind gusts was smaller compared to the first two days.
On our return to BIUST in Palapye on 6 October, we held a seminar for staff and students to share our experiences.
Overall, the campaign was a complete success. Our observations have demonstrated the capability of the RDS and SIS sensors to detect and characterise dust devils on Mars, and the rainy episode offered us the chance to study dust lifting events in different aerosol loading conditions. The analysis of the signals, along with the information acquired by the other instruments, will allow us to quantitatively establish the sensors’ limits of detection, and support interpretation of the data received from Mars.
This report has previously been published on the Europlanet website as Dust Devil Diary.
From Greenland to Ganymede
Costanza Rossi (INAF – Astronomical Observatory of Padova, Italy) and Paola Cianfarra (Università degli Studi di Genova) visited the Kangerlussuaq site in Greenland.
From 19-29 July, together with two other research groups, we took part in a field research trip in the Kangerlussuaq area of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Our group of two geologists was looking for glacial deformation structures (such as fractures, faults and crevasses) that we could relate to deformation structures observed on icy moons of giant planets, such as Ganymede, Europa or Enceladus.
Most of these icy moons show widespread tectonic deformation, which is revealed through kilometric-scale linear or curving fractures and faults that shape the moons’ surfaces. These structures provide insights into crustal evolution and underlying oceans, which help us to unravel the tectonic activity of these icy bodies.
Fractures also represent a way of transporting material between the surface and the liquid layer beneath, and are preferential pathways for fluids to escape, as we observe in the ‘Tiger Stripe’ plumes at Enceladus’s south pole. Detection of fractures and faults is, therefore, important for advancing our knowledge of icy satellite geology. However, analysis of observations from remote-sensing planetary missions, like Cassini or JUICE, can be supported by making field studies of analogue sites on Earth that share many of the properties of icy moons.
The Greenland Ice Sheet, which we visited for our project, UPSIDES, is one of the most interesting terrestrial analogues for icy moons. Glaciers represent active bodies that are driven by gravity flows and deform due to their own weight. They present specific and predictable deformation patterns, depending on the area of the glacier, because of the stress that is exerted on them.
UPSIDES focused on the identification, detection and measurement of the deformation structures in the Isunguata Sermia and Russell Glaciers in the western margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Our aim was to relate our studies of local-scale structures and outcrops with regional-scale and remote analysis using data from satellites. We carried out a campaign to measure in-situ the structures and their attributes, such as their horizontal and vertical displacement, orientation, height, spacing, distribution and crosscutting relationships. We then compared the collected outcrop data with images from remote-sensing satellites to understand the consistency of measurements made at the two different scales of investigation.
The fieldwork is important for constraining the interpretation of the tectonics of remote and unreachable surfaces such as those of the icy moons. The comparison of local-scale and regional-scale data on outcrops at the Isunguata Sermia and Russell analogues will allow us to better understand the tectonics and give us insights into deformation structures on icy moons observed by past and future missions.
Virtual Access from Europe to Asia
Denice Borsten and Jochem Sikkes are part of a group of Master’s students from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VUA) who study the changing geological and environmental conditions across the Great Oxidation Event that occurred on Earth ~2.4 Billion years ago. From late September to November 2021, they carried out remote Secondary Ionisation Mass Spectrometry (SIMS) measurements under the guidance of Keewook Yi at the Korea Basic Science Institute (KIST) for projects supervised by Fulvio Franchi from BIUST Botswana & Gareth Davies (VUA).
The Great Oxidation Event saw a major rise in levels of oxygen in the early Earth’s atmosphere and was a pivotal event that ultimately led to the planet becoming habitable. Our specific project is to evaluate the tectono-magmatic evolution of the regional geology in Botswana during the Archaean to mid- Paleoproterozoic eons (~3.2-2.0 billion years ago). Using uranium-lead radiometric dating and lutetium–hafnium isotope analysis we aim to create better constraints of the geological timeframe and provide insights into the formation of the Kanye sedimentary basin in eastern Botswana, which contains some of the best-preserved rocks from this key period in the Earth’s history.
In autumn 2021, we had the opportunity to remotely-access the Sensitive High Resolution Ion Microprobe (SHRIMP IIe/MC) mass spectrometer in South Korea on several occasions, to date uranium-lead ratios in zircons retrieved from Botswana.
It was very exciting for us, as Master’s students, to use these cutting-edge techniques to analyse our samples and to collaborate with the team of Dr Keewook Yi of the Korean Basic Science Institute (KBSI). It has been a wonderful learning experience and we are particularly looking forward to the prospect of preparing a joint publication