Mixing a recipe for Mars in the ice-lab
June 19, 2018

Europlanet Transnational Access visit to IPAG, October, 2017

This guest post is by Jacqueline Campbell, a member of the Europlanet Diversity Working Group and a PhD Student in the Imaging Group at Mullard Space Science Laboratory, who participated in a Europlanet Transnational Access visit to the Institut de Planetologie et d’Astrophysique de Grenoble (IPAG) in October 2017.

In 2017, I was fortunate enough to receive funding through the Transnational Access opportunities within the Europlanet 2020 Research Infrastructure program to carry out laboratory experiments in support of my PhD research.

I study dynamic features on Mars, and am interested in the composition of dust exposed by seasonal changes in the Martian South Polar Cap, in order to search for organic material. My experiment proposal involved mixing Mars dust analogues with organics and ice, and putting the materials in a chamber that emulates Mars conditions.

My chosen facility was the Institut de Planetologie et d’Astrophysique de Grenoble (IPAG), under the supervision of Bernard Schmitt.

Institut de Ppanétologie et d’astrophysique de Grenoble

With the help of two other scientists at IPAG, Olivier Brissaud and Pierre Beck, we measured the spectra of our organics, Martian soil analogue and ices separately and then set to work mixing them together to analyse their changes over time.

We used an instrument called the Spectro-gonio Radiometer to look at the infrared spectra of the materials, along with the CarboN-IR environmental cell, which can simulate Mars surface pressures and temperatures. We then made up our mixtures of ices and dusts with organic molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are thought to be important in theories of how life originated.

In order to keep the ice from sublimating away while we mixed out organics and dust together, we had to wear ski-jackets and gloves and sit in room at up to -20°C, before putting the mixture into the chamber at -100°C and sealing the door to the environmental cell as swiftly as possible to prevent condensation and sublimation of the sample.

Sample of CO2 ice in Carbon-IR Environmental Cell

Throughout the week we analysed several different mixtures, and were able to obtain new results for spectra of organics pertinent to Martian astrobiology, and establish the detectability limit of the organics in ices. I was also able to spend some time learning about other projects at IPAG, and look around Grenoble.


Grenoble’s transport system has 100% disabled access, and the Université Grenoble Alpes is well known for its excellent facilities and support services. The Europlanet TA program was a fantastic opportunity for me to meet new collaborators, and carry out novel experiments, and I have applied for this year’s program so that I can return to Grenoble to continue my experiments pertaining to other dynamic regions on Mars that may contain present-day liquid water. We have a paper in preparation for publication on our results that will be published later this year.