Research

I am fascinated by brines, ice and the interaction between the two. Because they can remain liquid at extremely low temperatures, brines are found all over the solar system, and may even represent habitable niches beyond Earth. We can use brines and the minerals they form - salts - to study water that has long since disappeared (for example, on Mars), or to study the deep oceans of icy moons in the outer solar system, which vent brine, ice and salts into space. Their oceans are locked below kilometres or even 10s of kilometres of solid ice, so this 'cryovolcanism' remains our best tool for studying them.

The above image shows a cross-section of a droplet of rapidly frozen brine. The darker material is ice, and the network of lighter material is the solidified remnants of brine 'veins'. The far right of the image is the surface of the droplet. This image is about 400 micrometres across.

I focus much of my current research on these icy ocean worlds, developing understanding to help current and future missions unlock the secrets of their frozen salts. My work is mainly in the lab, but I have also conducted fieldwork in polar and sub-polar regions to help 'ground-truth' my experimental results. I collaborate with scientists on NASA's Europa Clipper, ESA's JUICE and inform the development of instrumentation for future missions.

My main research questions are:

  • How do ocean fluids behave as they are transported upwards through an icy shell towards the extreme cold of space?

  • How can we recognise frozen ocean material on the surface of icy moons from spacecraft measurements?

  • How might evidence of life manifest in these frozen salt deposits?

Fieldwork

My fieldwork mostly involves sampling unique brine systems for geochemical, spectral and microbiological analyses back in the lab. I have been lucky enough to visit the Canadian High Arctic, Iceland, Greenland, British Columbia and 1.1 km underneath North Yorkshire in this pursuit. The above image shows 'Lost Hammer' brine Spring on Axel Heiberg Island in the Canadian Arctic, which forms a large deposit of salts (white material) that are spectrally similar to salts on the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. 

The above image was taken in Iceland in winter 2018. Iceland offers us the chance to study chemical systems that compare to the alkaline conditions found within Saturn's moon Enceladus. 

I have also been involved in field trials for the ExoMars PanCam emulator in Iceland and in LIDAR scanning of permafrost features in the Canadian Arctic.

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