As one of this year’s Fulbright Scholars, Arizona State University cosmochemist Meenakshi Wadhwa will have an opportunity to work at India’s premier research institute for the space sciences. She will be working on collaborative research involving studies of a unique Mars meteorite to understand the origin and history of water on Mars.
“It is my hope that my collaborative research at India’s Physical Research Laboratory will open future opportunities for my students and postdoctoral researchers — and possibly even others more broadly in SESE — to collaborate with students and researchers there, and possibly other Indian academic and research institutions as well,” says Wadhwa, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the director of the Center for Meteorite Studies.
Wadhwa was awarded the Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Award, which will enable her to spend four months in the spring/summer of 2016 to conduct research at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad (Gujarat, India), known as the cradle of space sciences in India.
Her research activities focus on deciphering the origin and evolution of the Solar System and planetary bodies through geochemical and isotopic means. She relies on a technique known as isotope analysis to measure the ratios of isotopes, which are two or more forms of the same element that contain different numbers of neutrons.
She has made significant contributions in the development and application of high precision isotope analyses that have led to a better understanding of processes and time scales involved in the formation and evolution of planetary bodies in our Solar System.
During her time in India, she will be working with students and colleagues at the PRL to understand the origin and history of water on Mars based on studies of Mars meteorite NWA 7034, also known as “Black Beauty”. Water on the Red Planet is a big deal for scientists because of the potential it offers for extraterrestrial life. Wherever there’s water on Earth, scientists have found life – and researchers suspect the same may be true elsewhere.
“We have only just begun our investigations of this meteorite — it was only discovered in 2013, and the Center for Meteorite Studies acquired a slice of it last year,” says Wadhwa.
Using a combination of state-of-the-art analytical facilities at the PRL and ASU, she will be developing methods for precise analyses of the abundance and isotope composition of water in the fine-grained minerals in this Mars rock, thought to have formed as surface regolith on that planet. She also hopes to utilize these methods for analyses of other samples in the collection of the PRL and the Geological Survey of India that are not as readily available in other museum collections.
ASU’s Center for Meteorite Studies holds a 20-gram cut of Black Beauty. The bulk chemical composition of this meteorite closely matches that of the Martian crust as measured by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers and Mars Odyssey Orbiter. It also contains the most amount of water of any of the known Martian meteorites.
Wadhwa’s Fulbright project will build upon recent work in her research group on understanding the water contents and hydrogen isotopes in Mars meteorites, especially in major minerals in these rocks that typically do not accommodate much water in their structure.
Each year, the U.S. Fulbright Scholar Program awards about 800 highly sought after teaching and/or research grants to selected U.S. faculty and experienced professionals, enabling them to engage in collaborative studies and research in more than 125 countries. Award recipients are chosen for exemplary achievements and proven leadership in their fields.
Wadhwa's most notable recognitions include a 2005 Guggenheim Fellowship, Nier Prize of the Meteoritical Society, Fellow of the Meteoritical Society, the Antarctic Service Medal (for two field seasons collecting meteorites in Antarctica) and an asteroid named 8356 Wadhwa by the International Astronomical Union.
She is only the second ASU recipient of this award, which is part of the Fulbright Scholar Program and is jointly funded by the Government of India. The first ASU recipient was Stephen MacKinnon, professor emeritus in the department of history.
Written by Nikki Cassis