Absolute Blast

Produced: September 11, 2017 | Updated: May 08, 2019

A UT grad student is one of only a few researchers worldwide exploring Mars in augmented reality.

A headset called the HoloLens shows Rachel Kronyak, a doctoral student in UT’s Department of Geology, the surface of Mars in a three-dimensional hologram.

The images used to build the hologram are taken by Curiosity, the NASA rover that has been exploring the planet for the past six years.

Curiosity Self-Portrait at Murray Buttes
Curiosity Self-Portrait at Murray Buttes

NASA launched Curiosity in November 2011. When the rover landed on Mars in August 2012, UT Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Linda Kah joined the Curiosity mission.

Kronyak was the first student Kah brought onto the Mars rover science team in late 2014. Two other earth and planetary sciences professors—Jeff Moersch and Chris Fedo—also have roles on the mission.

Two sizes of ripples on surface of Martian sand dune
Two sizes of ripples on surface of Martian sand dune

The team plans the rover’s daily science operations and analyzes the data sent back to Earth.

In the early days of telescopes, Kronyak says astronomers were convinced that Mars contained extensive canal systems constructed by advanced, intelligent civilizations.

While NASA’s explorations have not uncovered such evidence, the understanding of Mars is advancing.

“With Curiosity in particular, we’ve found environments that, in the past, would have been suitable for microorganisms,” Kronyak explains. “And in the past two years or so, we’ve discovered that Gale Crater, Curiosity’s landing site, was likely an ancient lake.”

Curiosity examines a meteorite on Mars
Curiosity examines a meteorite on Mars

The rover’s findings suggest the lake’s existence goes back more than three billion years, and that it filled and dried in cycles over tens of millions of years.

Curiosity also gives NASA another advantage. “With advancing technologies in the past few decades, we’re able to increase our resolution of the Martian surface with each mission,” Kronyak says.

a map of the route driven by the rover from where it landed in August 2012 to its location in December 2016
The route driven by the rover from where it landed in August 2012 to its location in December 2016

The robotic vehicle—about the size of a Mini Cooper—takes high-resolution images of nearby rocks and analyzes them to determine their chemical composition.

“With Curiosity and other Mars missions, we’re constantly learning new things about the evolution of Mars as a planet—how its surface, atmosphere, and environments have changed over geologic time, and how these lessons might be applied to our own planet,” Kronyak says.

Kronyak is trying to understand how to relate the data from engineering experiments with Earth analog rocks to data from the rocks Curiosity encounters on Mars.

Her dissertation research, including data collected from the rover and HoloLens, will help scientists understand how rock fractures are involved in underground water circulation on Mars. This is crucial to considering how, when, and where life may have existed there.

a HoloLens
HoloLens provides access to scientists and engineers looking to interact with Mars in a more natural, human way.

“We’re explorers scouting uncharted land, just like our ancestors,” Kronyak says. “The only difference is that we get to do it with a robot on Mars. In many ways, I feel like this is the closest I’ll get to being an astronaut and going to Mars, so it’s an absolute blast.”

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