MSc/PhD/Postdoctoral Projects in Mars Geochemistry and Habitability/LIBS with ChemCam and the MSL mission at McGill University

Funded projects are available for MSc/PhD/Postdoctoral candidates to work on Mars
geochemistry and habitability as part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL)
mission. The ChemCam laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) instrument,
currently operating on the Curiosity rover, has the unique ability to perform sub-mm
scale elemental analyses on Martian rocks. This has been particularly effective for
veins and other fine-scale diagenetic features that are common in Gale Crater. Such
features provide important information and constraints on the nature, timing, and
duration of aqueous alteration on Mars. In addition, LIBS enables depth profiles to be
performed by progressively ablating surface materials with multiple laser shots. This
effectively enables probe-like, three-dimensional chemical analyses of targets.
However, preliminary results suggest that the interpretation of LIBS data from
complex natural geological materials is not straightforward due to a complex
interplay of sample heterogeneities and laser-matter interaction. It is therefore
important to advance LIBS investigations of depth profiling for complex natural rock
samples in the context of planetary exploration, and specifically to enhance the
scientific return of the MSL mission.

This investigation will include detailed analyses of a suite of relevant natural analog
samples using the ChemCam flight-like instruments (Los Alamos, Toulouse) as well
as a new Applied Spectra Tandem LIBS/LA-ICP-MS at McGill. Associated field-work
will target mafic weathering profiles and smectite-rich veins of the Monteregian Hills,
Quebec. Prepared synthetic samples will also be investigated in order to better
understand plasma emission and laser-matter interactions in different geological
materials and a different depths. Samples will also be fully characterized, before and
after LIBS analyses, at McGill University’s Facility for Electron Microscopy Research
and geochemical laboratories.

This investigation will also enhance the study of burial diagenesis, fracturing and
vein formation by providing improved chemical analyses of diagenetic features and
veins, including multi-layered veins, thus providing insight into post deposition fluid
evolution. Students will become members of the MSL Science team and may
participate in MSL science operations, ChemCam investigations, science team
meetings, and interpretation of returned data. Students will also have the
opportunity to participate in the newly-formed, multidisciplinary McGill Space
Institute.

Altogether, this work will significantly improve the fine-scale characterization of
materials on Mars, thereby helping to better assess past habitability. This work will
also be relevant to the SuperCam investigation on the Mars 2020 rover and other
planetary LIBS instruments. Interested candidates should send a letter of interest
and CV to Dr. Richard Léveillé (richard.leveille@mcgill.ca), NASA MSL Participating
Scientist and Adjunct Professor, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, McGill
University, Montreal, QC.

McGill University is an English-speaking university and is consistently ranked as one
of Canada’s leading research-intensive universities.