Jarntimarra 1: Selecting an Australian Mars Analogue Research Site

Dr Jonathan Clarke (Australian National University)

& Dr Graham Mann (Murdoch University)



--- Abstract - Full Paper - Profiles ---

Abstract: In 2001 the Mars Society Australia carried out a study to select areas with Mars analogue research potential. Electronic discussion between members of the MSA highlighted a number of these, especially in South Australia and the Northern Territory. Sites were nominated on the basis of scientific relevance, range of terrain types, and visual resemblance to Mars. The two week long Jarntimarra-1 expedition in October November of the same year visited these sites and evaluated them in terms of their Mars analogue potential.

The survey team filled in a database information sheet at each site, recording information of the site name, date visited, coordinates, ownership, access, risks, maps, geology, climate, flora/fauna, history, analogue value and references. These provided for factual entries in the Jarntimarra database. Comparative judgments with respect to MSA's specific needs were made on a separate assessment sheet with a list of 8 scientific, 8 engineering, 7 logistic, and 8 visual criteria.

The expedition noted that most of the assessed sites fell within the boundaries of only six 200-km diameter circles. These circles are equivalent to the area that could be easily explored of a simulated Mars base, given a vehicle capable of extended traverses. Each zone was rated on 5-point scale according to the above specific characteristics with engineering and science factors being given double weighting. Moon Plain, Woomera and Arkaroola regions achieved equal ranking as the most attractive sites.

Further examination led to the Arkaroola region in the North Flinders Ranges being selected because its international scientific reputation and history of Mars analogue research. Previous Specific Mars analogue research in the region has been three-fold, focusing on aeolian landforms, extremophiles, and remote sensing. Studies of aeolian landforms compared Martian dunes at Nili Petra with terrestrial dunes at Gurra Gurra Waterhole in the Strzelecki Desert. The extremophile work found radiation-resistant thermophiles in the Paralana hot spring, which is characterised by high levels of radon gas. The area has been used in remote sensing experiments comparing hyperspectral imagery from the alteration halo surrounding the Mount Painter fossil hydrothermal system with ground truth from a hand-held spectrometer. This last study is particularly relevant to detecting the presence of such systems on Mars, which are believed to be good localities to search for microfossils. Potential Mars analogue geoscience research in the area may include palaeontology, geomorphology and regolith studies. The Proterozoic sediments of the area are known to host silicified microfossils and the sinters of the Mt. Gee fossil hydrothermal system show potential for microfossil preservation. Geomorphological and regolith studies include evolution of the alluvial fans on the eastern flank of the Flinders Ranges, nature of mound springs of Lake Frome, and landscape evolution of the northern Flinders Ranges, where uplift has led to partial exhumation and dissection of ancient land surfaces buried beneath Cretaceous cover. The finally, the area includes a wide range of surfaces, including boulder-strewn stream beds, gibber plains, salt lakes, sand dunes, gorges and very rugged hills.

An ideal site for the habitat was found on the gravel plains to the east of the Arkaroola zone's central point, between the eastern side of the northern Flinders Ranges and Lake Frome. This will allow easy access to sites in the Flinders Ranges proper and on the plains that surround Lake Frome. It will also simplify logistics, as a well-maintained, unsealed road runs up the eastern margin of the ranges, joining the Strzelecki Track to the north and the Barrier Highway to the south. The exact site will be decided upon during the Jarntimarra-2 expedition.

PROFILE: Dr Jonathan Clarke

Dr Jonathan Clarke is a geologist with experience in the mineral and petroleum industry, academia, and in government surveys. He has worked in every state of Australia mostly in the arid interior. In addition he has practiced geology in New Zealand, the Philippines, and the Atacama desert of northern Chile, one of the most Mars-like areas on earth. Dr Clarke presently works for the CRC for Landscape, Environment, and Mineral Exploration (LEME) at the Australian National University, studying the history and evolution of the Australian landscape. Current research interests include: history of aridity in the Atacama desert, the distribution of biogenic opal in the regolith, the palaeogeography of the Nullarbor sea during the Eocene period and the evolution of the landscape of the SE Yilgarn in WA and SW Gawler craton in SA. Dr Clarke was also the lead scientist on the first expedition of Project Jarntimarra in 2001 and is currently project manager for Mars Society Australia’s proposed Mars research facility – MARS-OZ.

PROFILE: Dr Graham Mann

Dr Mann is an engineer, specializing in robotics and human-machine interactions. After taking a psychology degree and doing research in psychophysiology at the University of WA’s Biofeedback Laboratory, he moved to the University of NSW, to study for a Master’s degree in cognitive science, and later a PhD in artificial intelligence. Dr Mann has designed and built a number of innovative robots, including a walking biped and a domestic floor-cleaning machine. He is presently overseeing the design and construction of Project Marsupial and was the lead engineer on the first Project Jarntimarra expedition in 2001.