The Western Martians explore Washington’s otherworldly side

It’s a well known fact that Washington has boundless natural wonders in its backyard, but few people know that it has places similar to our sister planet – Mars. 

The WWU Mars Research Lab recently took a trip to Eastern Washington to study the ancient basalt rock flows and the landscape marked by enormous floods. Most of Mars is covered in basalt similar to the type found in Eastern Washington, and its surface also abounds in evidence of flowing water, according to Kristiana Lapo, laboratory assistant for the Western Mars lab. 

This similarity exists because deep in Eastern Washington’s past, huge vents opened up and poured molten rock across the landscape that hardened into thick layers of basalt. Then, at the end of the last ice age, enormous quantities of water spilled out of lakes that covered half of Montana and left a trail of gigantic landmarks. 

“We see all these massive erosional features like flood gravel bars and massive ripples on Mars,” said Lapo. “Based on the size of the features, the outburst floods on Mars were significantly larger than the ones on Earth.” 

In Eastern Washington, the Mars Lab team was doing on Earth what the Curiosity and Perseverance Rovers are doing on Mars – finding clues from light. They examined rocks at Frenchman Coulee, Potholes Coulee, Dry Falls, and Lake Lenore Caves. 

“We basically shoot lights at rocks and then see what wavelengths come back, in not only the visible [spectrum] but the infrared,” said Lapo. “That tells us about what the rock is made of.” 

Decades of rover missions to Mars and satellite pictures of its surface strongly indicate a time when there was liquid water on the now bone-dry planet, according to Lapo. One of the Mars lab’s main roles is to compare the spectral data from Earth’s rocks and the rocks on Mars to see how water interacted with the rocks on Mars.

The Mars Lab is actively studying a fan-shaped pile of sediment in Jezero Crater on Mars through Perseverance, a new rover that they helped design and test. Jezero Crater was likely a lake at one time, and the sediment appears to be where water entered and left a landform similar to a delta, according to NASA. 

“On Earth, life – especially microbial life – is best preserved in features like the ones we see in Jezero Crater,” Lapo said. “[Perseverance has] just arrived at the edge of that delta and we are now looking for evidence of life.” 

One of the ways Perseverance is looking for this life is by drilling into the Martian delta and storing samples of the sediments. The plan is to bring that sediment back to Earth for closer study, according to Lapo. 

While the scientific community awaits those samples, basalt rocks from Eastern Washington and other areas with past and present volcanic activity can help scientists study the complexity of natural rock formations and better interpret similar rock formations on Mars, said Lapo. Rocks on Earth also form a crust that stores information about the environment, such as the amount of water present, and planetary scientists can then look for similar mineral crusts on Martian rocks, they said.

An example of rocks harboring evidence of the prehistoric past is Ginkgo Petrified Forest, near Vantage in Eastern Washington, where prehistoric trees turned to stone over time. The Mars lab team visited the site just for fun during their field study, Lapo said. 

“We don’t have petrified wood on Mars,” Lapo said jokingly. “”But that would be cool.”