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The young people site of the
Mineralogical Association of Canada
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Meet with a Mineralogist

Cosmic Rocks and Astronauts

Celestine in Inyo My name is Celestine Mercer and I’m a graduate student in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon, USA.  When I was a little girl, I loved to look at the stars!


I lived on a farm in Colorado where the skies were dark and the stars were very bright.  When I was in high school, I decided to sell my cows so that I could purchase a telescope that would allow me to study the stars more closely.  With a telescope I could see craters on the Moon, Mars’ red color, Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s moons, newly formed stars, cosmic dust clouds, and even other galaxies!  But observing these celestial objects just Cluster starsmade me more curious about them...  Why do they move the way they do? How did they form?  I wanted to go to one of the planets and look around!  I wanted to be an astronaut!

I studied very hard in high school and earned an academic/athletic scholarship to attend Oberlin College.  At Oberlin I studied physics, math, astronomy, chemistry, and geology.  Planetary geology and “mineralogy” (the study of crystals) were my favorite classes.  College was fun and provided me with an overload of interesting information!  Did you know that Mars has the biggest volcano and deepest canyon in the solar system?  Did you know that there are oceans covered in thick ice on Jupiter’s moon, Europa, which could contain life?  Did you know there are continually erupting volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon, Io, because the competing gravity of the Sun and Jupiter are tearing Io apart?   Did you know that your bicycle would melt on Venus because a runaway greenhouse effect makes it very hot there?  Did you know that scientists made a spacecraft that flew by a comet, stuck its little robotic arm out to catch comet dust, and is now flying back to Earth to return the exotic space dust?  Wow!  After learning these things, I decided that I wanted to study the geology of nearby astronomical objects like the planets and moons of our solar system.  Besides, one of the first people to walk on Mars would need to be very knowledgeable about these things!

After my third year of college I interned at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  (The Jet Propulsion Laboratory makes all kinds of amazing spacecrafts, Mars rovers, and gadgets for the space shuttles.  They study the information these space crafts return as well.)   There I helped a real planetary scientist map uncharted territories on Venus and search for evidence of water on Mars! 

During my last year of college, I had the opportunity to help a real volcanologist study recently erupted volcanoes in California.  I worked “out in the field” collecting rocks that had exploded out of the volcanoes and lava samples that flowed from the volcanoes.  Then I took the samples back to my college to study them with a microscope and try to understand how the volcano erupted.  Pretty amazing that rocks could tell such an interesting story, huh?  Understanding how and why volcanoes erupt is very important because active volcanoes can be very dangerous to people and animals. (Volcanoes can also be very helpful for people and animals because they make soil rich for growing grass and crops.) 

After I graduated from college I decided that I wanted to continue studying science and get my PhD.  But which fascinating topic did I want to study?  One day I was watching a video about the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines when I got the goose bumps from the excitement!  Volcanic eruptions are very amazing because they are an incredible force of nature that no one on Earth can control.  When a volcano decides it’s ready to erupt, watch out!  So I decided that I would study volcanoes since there are many to observe on Earth as well as in space.

Sisters volcano Now I am at the University of Oregon studying a Cascade volcano in central Oregon named North Sister.  You may hear about it in the news because its neighboring volcano, South Sister, is becoming restless and may erupt sometime soon!  I am becoming an “experimental petrologist”, or a “rock detective”.  I study the crystals and textures in volcanic rocks which contain evidence of the rock’s long journey through the Earth.  Understanding a rock’s journey can help predict how violently it will erupt from a volcano so that we can warn people who may live nearby.  In my laboratory I melt volcanic rocks under enormous pressures. This simulates the conditions that magma experiences as it moves its way through the Earth’s mantle and crust to a volcano.  By studying the minerals that form at many different pressures and temperatures, I can piece together a history of the volcanic rocks that I picked up at North Sister!  The oven in my lab heats up to 1400°Celsius which is about 5 times hotter than your oven at home!  The “piston-cylinders” in my lab press with enough force to pick up eight houses at once, and they simulate being inside the Earth up to 60 miles beneath your feet!  Here’s how I run an experiment: (Don’t try this at home!)

  • Collect a rock from a volcano and grind it into a powder
  • Fill a little “soda-can” the size of your pinky fingernail with the rock powder and weld the can shut; this can is made of special material (platinum or palladium) that will not melt at 1400°C
  • Place the soda can inside a custom-made “furnace”; this furnace is made out of graphite (the mineral in your pencil) and heats up when I pass an electrical current through it
  • Place the furnace/soda-can assembly into the center of the “bomb”; the bomb is a disk made out of steel and tungsten carbide- very strong stuff; this keeps my rock sample from squishing like a pancake when I apply pressure to it
  • Place the bomb into the “piston-cylinder” apparatus and squeeze the sample!
  • Turn on cooling water (so I don’t burn the lab down!) and turn on electricity to heat the sample; the rock sample is now melted and white hot (like a baby magma chamber)!
  • Now my rock sample is at the Earth’s “mantle” or “crust”, depending on how hard the piston-cylinder is squeezing!

I usually leave the rock sample there for a day so that all of the crystal growth and slow chemical processes have a chance to do their magic…  When I “quench” (chill) and decompress the sample, the soda-can is squished and the rock inside is now a beautiful green glass with crystals.  Then I use many different techniques, such as shooting electrons at the rock or passing infrared radiation thru it, to study the glass and crystals that I have made.

Now, what do crystals have to do with being an astronaut?  Well, understanding crystals and rocks and volcanoes on Earth is the first step to understanding them on the Moon, Mars, or the other planets.  Much of our understanding of the Moon has come from studying rocks that Apollo astronauts brought back to Earth i n the 1970s.  The rocks on the Moon are not like the rocks you and I see everyday.  They are more like the rocks that are deep down in the mantle of the Earth. mars exploration rover   This knowledge has helped scientists create a theory of how the moon was created.  Have you ever hiked up a mountain on Earth?  Well, try it on Mars!  Mars has the tallest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons, which is more than three times as tall as Mt. Everest!  Mountains on Mars can reach taller heights because the gravity of Mars is less than half that on Earth.  The Mars Rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, are tromping around Mars right now probing the rocks and dust on the Martian surface.  The goals of these “robotic geologists” are to characterize the climate and geology of Mars, determine whether life ever arose on Mars, and prepare for human exploration.  And who knows, I bet one of the first human Martian explorers will be a geologist!  I hope so!  Maybe you could be a Martian explorer too!

Astronauts can have many different professions.  Astronauts can be astro-geologists, astronomers, physicists, computer scientists, biologists, doctors, meteorologists, engineers, chemists, nutritionists, airplane pilots, and teachers just to name a few!  So no matter where your interests lie, if you really want to be an astronaut, don’t be afraid to make a leap for your dreams! 

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Neil Armstrong

First astronaut to land on the moon in 1969

Here are some fun links:

How to Become and Astronaut:

Astronaut Biographies: See where the astronauts started out; Roberta L. Bondar is the first Canadian Woman in Space!

Interactive Astronaut Information: Living in Space, Astronaut School, Meet the Astronauts

Mineralogy for Kids: Minerals in Your House, Mineral Properties, Crystals, Games

NASA Kids: Astronaut and Space Fun Facts, Space Pictures, Interactive Games

Jet Propulsion Laboratory Kids: Galaxy Games, Learn about Mars, Robotics, Math Activities

USGS Kids: Trivia, Make Models of Volcanoes, Earth Quakes, Homework Help, Term Glossary, Projects

Mars Rover Updates: See What Spirit and Opportunity Did Today!

Astronomy Picture of the Day: Beautiful Pictures of Earth, the Planets, and Our Universe

Open Cluster of Stars

Space Walk

Spirit Rover Working Hard on Mars

Me studying a 500 year old lava flow in the Inyo Volcanic Chain, Eastern California

1991 Eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, Philippines

North Sister Volcano, Cascades, Central Oregon

Piston-Cylinder Squeezing a Melted Rock Sample

Microscopic View of a Moon Rock

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