EAPS Graduate Student Awarded NASA Fellowship for Mars Polar Research
Writer(s): Logan Judy
Prakhar Sinha didn’t begin his career as a geologist. He was originally an engineer, receiving his degree in mechanical engineering from the Ramaiah Institute of Technology in India, then received his Master’s degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Purdue in 2018. During that process, however, his interest moved from engineering to planetary science.
“I was able to pick courses outside of my major, which gave me exposure to planetary sciences. I realized that I was more interested in answering the scientific questions these spacecraft are intended to answer than building or sending the spacecraft themselves.”
The scientific questions Sinha is researching have to do with the recent past on Mars. As a planetary geologist who studies mineralogy, he’s interested in the story that the geologic record in the icy deposits at the poles tell about the planet.
“We learn about the recent climatic past of our planet, Earth,” Sinha said, “through studying the ice cores that scientists extract from ice sheets in Greenland or Antarctica.”
Sinha hopes to understand the nature of polar icy deposits on Mars in a similar way. The polar ice deposits on Mars are fairly recent, providing the opportunity to learn more about recent climatic history of the red planet. By examining the Martian polar surface using spectroscopy, he will search for sediments from meteor impacts and volcanic eruptions trapped in the ice and use these deposits to construct a record of events on the planet, particularly for its recent history.
This project recently grabbed the attention of NASA, when Sinha was awarded a fellowship in the program Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology (FINESST, formerly NESSF). The competitive fellowship provides research funding for up to three years.
One of the challenges inherent in this pursuit is the interpretation of the spectroscopic data. The spectrometer maps and takes pictures of the surface at different wavelengths of light, which creates a pattern through which Sinha can determine what minerals are present. With this information, he can explore what event might have created or brought the mineral to that place. When this technique is applied to the icy surfaces on Mars, it can be difficult to parse through the data.
“You have sediments in the icy layers, but the ice completely dominates the spectrum, making it hard to determine the composition of sediments,” Sinha said. “I’m removing all of the icy effects to get the spectrum of the sediments. These results will be really exciting for future missions that we hope will land at the poles, because we think these sediments can be age dated, and this will be important to get exact dates of the ice and eventually coordinate that with the climatic data.”
Sinha is advised by Dr. Briony Horgan of EAPS and anticipates graduation in spring 2023.