It’s pretty cool to be considered one of the leading experts on Martian meteorites at the tender age of 26, and Natasha Stephen can certainly lay claim to the title.
Having studied geology at Royal Holloway University of London, Natasha researched Icelandic volcanoes for her masters degree and then planetary sciences for her PhD. For Natasha, it’s not little green men that get her excited, but rocks from space.
Natasha has specialised in Martian meteorites for the past 4 years, and these days she’s the lady you call when you’ve got a rock from the red planet. But Natasha is not just a Mars aficionado; she’s a charterer of worlds. The young doctor is using B22-MIRIAM, Diamond’s infrared microspectroscopy beamline, to chronicle Mars’ many hard rocks and their minerals; in doing so, she is discovering parts of the red planet that no-one has ever explored before.
Our planet is made up of hundreds of different kinds of rocks and minerals, and we have a pretty comprehensive idea of what those rocks are because we have many complete libraries and databases of all of Earth’s strata. If curious scientists want to learn more about an intriguing igneous rock or a suspicious sedimentary specimen, they can refer to the library and track it down. But no such reference for Martian rocks exists, yet.
We now know more about the red planet than ever before. Satellites, spacecrafts and rovers have all set off for our planetary neighbour in search of data on its physical nature; soon the ESA EXOMars Rover will be launched onto Mars’ surface, where it hopes to drill down into the planet in an effort to uncover what the fourth planet from the sun is really made of.
However, despite the pioneering technology behind the missions to Mars, the alien rocks remain something of a mystery to Earthling scientists. Researchers have samples of Martian rocks to scrutinise – there are currently 69 Martian meteorites in storage – however the data they gather is tricky to analyse because there’s little to compare it to. But Natasha wants to change that. Her life’s work is more than just meteorites; Natasha’s ambition is to chronicle every type of rock and mineral found on Mars.
Currently, planetary scientists compare their alien samples to the library of Earth rocks but, as Natasha points out, the similarities are limited. “A Hawaiian lava is not the same as an Icelandic lava, so why would either of them be the same as a Martian lava?”, she asks. “And Martian meteorites are essentially just igneous rocks from Mars, similar to the lavas here on Earth”.
Instead, Natasha wants to build up a new library of the materials that make up Mars. She hopes that the library will help further our understanding of the alien planet. “The largest canyon and largest volcano in the solar system are both on Mars, but at the moment we don’t quite know how they formed”. She continues, “There are still a lot of unanswered questions about Mars and it isn’t all about the search for life on another planet, but it is important that we keep challenging ourselves and what we understand about the world(s) around us”.
Natasha’s curiosity is helping to formulate what will undoubtedly be a vital reference source for scientists of the future. Her Martian library is emblematic of how far planetary science has come and how far it has yet to go. But for Natasha, it’s all in a day’s work. She may not get to clock out by 5pm or even by midnight, but each day (and night) at the synchrotron brings her closer to uncovering the secrets of our solar system.