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At Age 21, WSU Undergrad Helps Develop Method For Hunting Water On Mars

A team of scientists has come up with a way to search for water on Mars, and the person behind much of the research is a Washington State University undergraduate.

At age 19, Kellie Wall was planning to major in communications. She needed a science credit and wound up in a geology course with a professor who was a big believer in undergrads getting research experience. There, Wall learned about a project involving volcanoes and other planets.

“I was really excited about it because there was this buzzword Mars attached to it,” she said.

Wall helped gather 29 samples from different volcanoes. They found a distinctive signature in the rock’s texture when a volcano has erupted through water, whether on Earth or on a nearby planet.

It has to do with the ratio of glassy material in the rock to micro-crystals that form as it solidifies.

“When you erupt magma through water, it basically flash-freezes all that material into glass,” she said.

A tool on the Mars rover Curiosity called an X-ray diffractometer can gather the needed data. Scientists can then look for signs of water not just on the planet’s surface, but also underground.

Wall, now 21 and starting her senior year, said it’s a thrill to think her work could help bring Mars into sharper focus. She recalled one night, after a long day in the lab analyzing data from Curiosity.

“I walked outside and I saw the twinkling red light up in the sky, and I was just in awe to feel connected to that,” she said.

Wall’s work is published in the journal "Nature Communications."

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.