Panorama of faulted Pleistocene sediments exposed in the Corinth Canal wall, Greece

Monday, 19 December 2016

Planetary Protection of the Outer Solar System workshop

PPOSS logo (
I started writing this post on the flight home from a few days in Cologne at a Planetary Protection of the Outer Solar System (PPOSS) workshop. The PPOSS project is a EU led international collaboration of academics and industry working toward a code of best practice for planetary protection for future space missions to the bodies of the outer solar system – such as the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn and asteroids.

Planetary Protection (PP) encompasses our attempts to minimise the chances of contaminating another world with microbes (biological contamination) or organic matter (organic contamination). This is important as if microbes survived the journey through space (which experiments have shown to be possible) and the destination proved habitable for them, then they could colonise. This is bad for two reasons; the current or future development of any indigenous life could be affected and the scientific integrity of the results of future missions would be compromised. Even if just dead microbes or non-biological organic matter are transported to the study locality then the results of experiments would still be contaminated leading to false positives and masking the detection of indigenous molecules or life.

To avoid this forward contamination a lot of effort has to go into building landers in sterile environments, making sure they are clean to strict requirements and ensuring that the orbits of orbiters and flyby missions are such that they will not impact areas of interest. The level of PP necessary increases with the potential habitability of the body of interest, for example our moon and small, dry asteroids have much lower requirements than Europa and Enceladus - which are both now believed to contain significant amounts of liquid water (a prerequisite of all known life). Backwards contamination is also a theoretical problem to avoid. This is where extraterrestrial microbes are brought back to Earth by a sample return mission - raising the possibility of infecting our planet with alien life. And procedures must be put into place to quarantine samples because of this.

Enceladus is a high risk for forward contamination due to the presence of large amounts of liquid water (image:

Imperial’s contribution (and my involvement) to this project is the writing of a chapter on‘Best practice of Organic Contamination Control’ as part of a handbook aimed at those working in space science and industry. This chapter will summarise the challenges involved in keeping the icy moons free from terrestrial organic (including biological) contamination and what lessons we can take (and adapt) from the planetary protection of Mars over the last 40-odd years. This is what my supervisor and myself have been working on for the last few months and was presented at the workshop.

This 2 day workshop at The German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne was to get everyone involved in the project together to thrash out a proper structure to the handbook and discuss what had already been done. Participants included representatives from the European Science Foundation (ESF - who are leading the project); the Commitee of Space Research (COSPAR); the German (DLR), Italian (INAF), Chinese (CAST), Japanese (JAXA), American (SSB) national aerospace organisations and private aerospace industries.  All with varied experience and opinions on planetary protection of various past and current missions (some of whom have been involved with PP since the first missions to Mars in the '60s and '70s).

It was a productive couple of days with many issues being cleared up by the panel, mostly to do with things being done ever so slightly differently or having different names in Europe and the US. It does look, however, that our chapter is going to need a major rewrite to get everything in that all the partners want. We may have to visit some of the European space missions that are currently being built, (such as MOMA, due to fly on ExoMars 2020) to sort out some case studies for inclusion (it’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it).

I tacked an extra day in Cologne onto the end of the workshop as I’d never visited Germany before and it coincided with the Christmas markets being in full swing. The Christmas markets are very impressive and even I couldn't help to feel festive as they pervade the whole city with Christmas music, gl├╝whein and the smell of grilling bratw├╝rst. I was shown around by Honza who also did his PhD at the University of East Anglia and is now doing a post doc in Cologne. A trip to a Bier Museum and the sampling of many of the local (very good) specialty beers resulted in a cracking hangover for the flight home.

Unfortunately now I'm back in the lab and somehow the pyrolysis unit has developed a leak while I've been away................Merry Christmas!

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Mars by numbers

At the moment my current task at work is to wade through masses of data collected and sent back down by the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) on the Curiosity Rover and try to figure out some of what’s going on up there and how it relates to our project (which I can’t talk about yet as we’re trying to get it published). 

One of Curiosity's selfies taken at Mount Sharp (from NASA

All of the data collected by the various instruments on Mar’s chemistry, climate, geology, etc are freely accessible to anyone. So far there are nearly 1130 sol’s (Martian day’s) worth of data, with hundreds of different experiments carried out over that period. That’s a lot to get through! Although so far I’ve only really been looking at a particular kind of geochemical analysis technique (again, can’t say which) but there is so much more, some of which nobodies probably had the time to properly look at yet. All of the big released photos of the Martian landscape are actually stitched together from many smaller shots taken by Curiosity and they are also all available to download in high resolution.

What I have been able to do is plot daily climate conditions from the Rover's weather station' to look at the changes in temperature and humidity over the Martian sol. This is a plot of the weather on the 183 sol since curiosity landed on Mars.

The nighttime temperatures going down to -70 C are not far off the coldest temperatures ever recorded at Earth's South Pole (around -80 C), however, this is a pretty typical Spring day near the Equator of Mars (Curiosity's landing site, Gale Crater, is 4.6 degrees south). And with daytime temperatures close to 0 C this is a huge range throughout the day.The measured relative humidities (RH) are much lower than the driest place on Earth, the Atacama desert, where the most arid parts have an average RH of around 17 %. However, Curiosity has recorded nighttime Winter RH values of up to 70 %, high enough for frost to form, showing the wide range of potential conditions at the landing site.

With all this available data online you've got to wonder how all the people who are convinced that NASA is hiding evidence of aliens on Mars still believe that. Surely it'd be a lot easier to just not bother 'faking' sending a Rover up and then have to then make up this huge amount of data? 

I think it’s pretty cool that anybody can download and play about with data that’s cost billions to produce and has been created over 30 million miles away on another planet. Delving into this resource is the closest most (if not all) of us will get to exploring another world.


Friday, 2 September 2016

Climbing and Cleavage - the geological history of the Llanberis Slate Quarries

So after just two trips to the Llanberis slate quarries of North Wales I am now a fully converted Slate Head. The sharp crimps, invisible micro-edges and frictionless slopers create a completely different climbing experience to any other rock type; with precision, balance and feet-up-by-your-face flexibility being much more important than pure strength and power. Routes are varied, balancing their way up apparently slick vertical slabs, bridging up awkward technical grooves, jamming thin micro-wire protected seams and even powering through overhanging series of roofs - keeping things interesting.

The Dinorwic Quarry, Australia area

But what is it that makes this rock behave the way it does, creating the contrast between those sharp edges and featureless, smooth faces? The slate is old and has experienced numerous events of geological upheaval to get to how it is today.

Originally fine particles fell out of suspension to form a fine mud at the bottom of an ocean basin, the Welsh Basin, slowly building up, resulting in thick deposits over millions of years. This was back in the Cambrian Period (named after Wales, Cymru) around 540 - 490 million years ago (the slates further south around Blenau Festiniog were deposited a few hundred million years later in the Ordovician). At this time the microcontinent of Avalonia (what was to become Wales and England) was on the southern edge of a large ocean, the Iapetus.
The Welsh Basin was a back arc depositional basin, an area of extension and subsidence behind a volcanic arc, created due to the subduction of the Iapetus Ocean beneath Avalonia.

Deposition in the Welsh Basin in a back-arc setting

With the closure of the Iapetus, the Northern and Southern halves of the British Isles were pushed together in the Caledonian Orogeny through the Ordovician to Devonian times (ending around 390 million years ago). This impact formed the mountain belts of northern Wales, Scotland and the north of England (which would then have been much larger than today), compressing, folding and faulting the rocks of the Welsh Basin, subjecting them to high directional pressures. This directional pressure (or stress) caused the low grade metamorphism of the mudrocks, leading to realignment and recrystallization of platy (flat) clay minerals (micas) and forming the slates. It is this alignment of minerals which causes slates to cleave along planes of weakness in one direction. This cleavage is what made the slates perfect for use as roofing tiles and creates the sharp edges and smooth faces we see today on the rock.

Slate formation: (1) Deposition of fine platy-clay minerals in a low energy marine setting; (2) Compression during mountain building event realigns the platy minerals perpendicular to the direction of applied pressure; (3) Planes of weakness are created which the slate cleaves along 
Fast forward nearly 400 million years and the Llanberis slate quarries were mined for hundreds of years, getting deeper and deeper into the earth and creating the stepped layers of exposed rock walls we can now explore. 

Monday, 25 July 2016

Graduation: The end of an era

On Thursday I finally graduated from my PhD. That was it, over, bringing a definitive end to my time at UEA after almost 5 years. This was just a formality, the ‘certificate’ I was handed on stage was just a blank piece of paper and the ‘scroll’ in my photos is nothing more than a bit of plastic drainpipe; I’d had the real certificate sent to me months before. However, it felt important to go and bring this final stage of my education to a marked conclusion, going along with all the (somewhat ridiculous) pomp and circumstance a 53 year old university can muster.

Returning to Norfolk after a few months in London felt like coming home; the walk through the quiet, green surroundings of the campus much more pleasant than my current daily death-cycle commute through west London.

The hot summer’s day meant the full PhD robes and suit were unwelcome, but thankfully the old sports hall was air conditioned and the ceremony was relatively short. After a few speeches, a quick walk across the stage and a handshake, it was all over. That was it, my link to UEA had been severed, and it was time to look ahead to the next stage of my career (see my last post).

The blur is me, honest

Photographs were taken with my colleagues of the last few years, the ‘Lobster Room’ office had almost all managed to go through the whole process and graduate together - the remainder of us refused to be separated for the group photos. There were, however, a few surprises as to who had and had not succeeded; the PhD process is not without its casualties and last minute triumphs.
After that, it was a race to lose the robes and get down t’pub for an evening in one of the best beer gardens in Norwich to discuss the highs and lows of our time at UEA and find out how everybody is doing now – mostly very well thankfully.

Despite media reports, UEA has not banned the throwing of hats

Charlotte and I stayed in Norwich for a long weekend doing everything we missed: drinking with old mountaineering club buddies, hanging out at the climbing wall where we used to work, getting sunburnt on the beach at Wells-next-the-Sea and exploring Thetford forest.

Norfolk might be quiet, out of the way and slow paced, but it is very pleasant. We’re going to miss it.

Just chilling with some ducks in the woods - sort of sums up Norfolk really

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Is there Life on Mars?

OK, so despite all the doom and gloom of my last but one post (here), I have now been working at Imperial College London for the last week. We have finally escaped Norfolk, breaking the ‘If you stay for 5 years, you stay forever’ rule.

I’m employed as a ‘Research Associate in Organic Matter and Minerals of Mars’, my job is to look for ways to improve our chances of detecting organic matter for future Mars lander missions. Put simply, I’m helping to LOOK FOR LIFE ON MARS (cue some Bowie)!

To sum up the problem I’ll be working on, as I understand it so far (remember, I’m not a chemist): Mars landers have not yet discovered conclusive evidence of organic matter (note: organic matter does not necessarily mean biological matter, they are compounds containing carbon and usually C-H and/or C-C bonds) but have found evidence of a group of minerals called perchlorates (ClO4) being pretty ubiquitous in Martian lake sediments (e.g. Glavin et al., 2013). These sediments are also the places we would expect to find evidence of organic matter, through its concentration by fluvial and lacustrine sedimentation processes. We know that there should be a measurable concentration of organics delivered to the Martian surface by meteorites and certain compounds could indicate evidence of past or current alien life, but nothing has been found so far. We believe that it is the presence of perchlorate that is currently blocking the positive identification of organic matter.

Analysis of Martian sediments for organics is carried out by pyrolysis gas chromatography mass spectrometry (Py-GC-MS). The sample is heated in the absence of oxygen to break down large molecules into smaller ones which can be separated by gas chromatography and detected by mass spectrometry, the products tell us what the big molecules originally were. The issue here is, perchlorate is strongly oxidising; it is a bleach. When it is heated in the pyrolysis unit as part of the sample, it breaks down releasing oxygen and chlorine. The presence of oxygen causes any organic matter present to combust, being lost as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and water. With everything breaking down and combusting, we do not detect either the organic matter or the perchlorate by this method – so it took a long time for anyone to even realise there was a problem.

Along with the rest of the research group, I now have to figure out a way to make this less of a problem, hopefully in time for ExoMars2020

So far I’ve been reading up on the last 40 years of geochemical analysis on Mars trying to get my head around the problem and understand a bit of the chemistry, which is fun as I haven’t done any organic geochemistry since my Masters.

On Friday I got sent to an outreach event across the road at the Royal Albert Hall, showing kids some bits of actual Martian meteorite and talking about the various ages of Mars, using Earth analogue rocks to demonstrate the strata which were laid down during each period. However, the guy next to us who’d brought a replica space suit to try on proved more popular for some reason. 

Our group's display

This was all part of a big school event which culminated in the Royal Philharmonic playing the planets, which was a pretty cool way to spend a Friday afternoon. It was good to hear that I am studying the planet with the best soundtrack.

The RPO playing 'Mars'

Next week I’ll actually get to grips with the machine I’ll be mostly working on (the Py-GCMS) and will be thrown in at the deep end analysing irreplaceable Apollo 17 moon rocks, so let’s see how that goes…

I think this project is going to be a bit more interesting than the snails…

Friday, 27 May 2016

Confused...Arts student??? or Snailmaggedon

For the last six weeks or so I’ve been working on a small scale project to attempt to find out if stable isotopes in modern terrestrial snail shell carbonate can provide reliable climate records in southern Cyprus. This is a pilot study for an archaeologist (interdisciplinary or what?) who hopes to use shells excavated from ancient settlements to see to what extent changes in human behaviour (e.g. migration) can be linked to climate change. The period she is interested in is during the mid-Holocene, around the time of Sapropel one, when there are well documented changes between more arid and more humid climate regimes. However these records tend to be from marine and lake cores (my corals also showed evidence of a cool and wet period around this time (Royle et al., 2015)) and so it is hard to directly relate them to distal changes in human behaviour due to uncertainty in dating techniques and the effects of local microclimates. Therefore getting climate data from the sites themselves would be pretty handy.

Snails are good for this as they are a common find on archaeological sites with most just being bagged, tagged and stored away; so there is plenty of material to work on and recent work has been promising (e.g. Prendergast et al., 2015a, 2015b). However, some species are burrowers and so could be later intruders into the deposits meaning careful species identification is necessary.

This has meant that the 3 days a week I’m not working at the climbing wall I’ve been back in the Stable Isotope Laboratory with the painstaking task of identifying, cleaning, crushing, weighing and analysing a fuck-tonne (well a few smuggled Tupperware boxes worth) of modern snail shells to see if they give consistent results.

Annoyingly, not being associated with the Environmental Sciences labs in any official capacity (somehow working under the strange umbrella of the ‘Art, Media and American Studies’, seriously, what the fuck???) or have ANY research budget, means I have been completely reliant on friendly technicians to let me into labs, donate leftover (highly toxic and corrosive) chemicals and borrow equipment, which has meant a lot of wandering around the maze of ENV looking for people with the necessary access rights, begging and bartering.
I was given a few hundred snail shells that had been collected (supposedly all already dead with no bits of snail inside them…) from various localities around Cyprus to sort through and pick out the best for analysis. Unsurprisingly, the helix of a snail shell is not very easy to clean, although my re-appropriated bouldering brush did a good job of getting the shallower dirt out. 

So many snails to clean...

After a day of repeatedly washing and rinsing and fishing globules of rotten snail carcass from deep inside the shells the whole lab, my hands and clothes stank of rancid mollusc, and they still needed a night in bleach and another morning’s cleaning to get them properly clean. One had had a maggot living deep inside it which took a lot of dislodging, while another wasn’t actually dead, just aestivating (snail hibernation) and so was released into the shrubbery…

Hidden deep within a shell

After they’d all been cleaned and oven dried, each shell had to be individually ground into a VERY fine powder with a pestle and mortar until completely homogenised. This took a surprising amount of time and effort with my right arm suffering from some major pump – pretty sure those few days’ work did more for my climbing endurance than the whole winter’s training!


70 micrograms (that’s 0.000070g) of each powdered shell then had to be weighed out ready for analysis, that’s not a lot of shell, it’s really quite fiddly using a really tiny spatula which is actually just a bit of wire with a flattened end.

Surprisingly for the three runs necessary for the analysis the mass spectrometer worked perfectly (read previous blogs to see what a rarity this is) and from a first going over the data all looks pretty good and sensible (which, again, is a rarity). There might even be a short paper in it, so I can’t divulge too much here. But we’ll see, there are some rather big sciencey things going on here right now, that are taking up most of my time, but more on that in a future blog…

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Interviewing a Very Confused Geologist

Monday saw my first post-doc interview, for a job at Imperial trying to figure out how to analyse samples to find evidence for organic molecules on Mars. I’ve had a fair few interviews over the last year but they’ve all otherwise been for part-time, outdoor-industry-related sales and service jobs in Norwich where my expert levels of kit fetishism and experience of actually having seen mountains have been enough to see me through. This, on the other hand, was intense.

In the week running up to the interview I’d not had a single day off to prepare. With perfect timing I’d just started back in the Stable Isotope Lab on a short-term pilot study (more on this in a later post). Preparing samples three days a week, the other four spent working my day job as a children’s entertainer and belay-monkey at the climbing wall. Preparation for the interview, writing a 15 minute presentation on my easiest- to-explain-but-not-necessarily-my-best paper and reading the research group’s latest papers on over my head level chemistry IN SPACE, had to be crammed into a continuous work – prep – train – sleep cycle.

One of the day jobs - snail crushing!

After a particularly intense Sunday-Funday of stopping small children killing themselves, I had to get the late-night train down from Norwich and spend a night on a mate’s sofa (thanks Jimmy). As anyone who has ever tried to escape the transport-link black hole that is East Anglia will know, this is preferable to trying to get out whilst in a hurry, as there'll probably be a tractor on the line or something. Having spent the past 5 years living at the rather sedate pace of Norfolk, navigating the Underground while fighting the London rush hour was a rather unpleasant wake up call to what city-life could be like if I do manage to get a ‘real’ job, although thankfully all the lines were running for once.

Arriving at the Royal School of Mines, with suit intact and plenty of time, I almost walked straight past the building. Its Classical style with pillars and huge, imposing sculptures of benefactors to the school defended by giant half-naked warriors carved out of Portland stone is such a far cry from the bleak 60’s concrete monstrosity of the UEA Teaching Wall that I have become accustomed to university buildings looking like.

The Imposing architecture of the Royal School of Mines - Image from

The interview started quite well (I think), my presentation on my paper from last year on the stable isotopic records of Cladocora caespitosa (can be read here if you’re interested) being met with nodding heads, smiles and no devastating questions from the three interviewers. I answered all the standard ‘How to you think your skills will translate to this project?’ and ‘Why do you want to do this’ questions without too much waffling and hopefully the right amount of science, the question checking I’d actually bothered to read their papers wasn’t too bad, and it even turned out one of the panel, the main PI, was a climber.

Then it all came crashing down, they fired a ‘basic’ chemistry question at me, ‘We have found [complicated mineral name I’ve never heard of] and [even more complicated mineral name I’ve never heard of] on Mars, what does this tell you about the chemistry of the water?’ I froze; mind blank, where did THIS come from? It was all going so well. I haven’t done real chemistry since my GCSE’s; I’m just a geologist that likes to play in the lab with the shiny machines (hence the Blog's title). This wasn’t the kind of thing I could even try and wing, I was fully out of my depth here, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know’ was all I could say. This was it, game over…maybe, we’ll see...

So now that’s it, wait and see if all that I could do was enough. Not holding my breath for this one, it’d be a great project to be on, but I expect the competition to be pretty stiff and probably know their chemistry a bit better. If nothing else it was good interview practice, any others will hopefully have a less stressful run up to them. And I did get a chance for a good catchup with an old university mate and a quality bouldering session at the Climbing Hanger while I was down there, so it wasn’t all bad. Now back to the process of finding more job adverts I can tenuously apply my skillset to and firing off applications.