Space Detectives

MIT Spectrum
Thursday, February 22, 2018

A freshman advising seminar investigates clues from the formation of new worlds.

Read this story at MIT Spectrum

12.A03 Meteorite from Mars Kills Dog: The Inside Story on Planets

Tim Grove
, Robert R. Shrock Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences

From the Catalog
Freshmen will recreate planetary formation in the laboratory. Each class looks at the way in which different planets formed and evolved by exploring the clues found in meteorites, moon rocks, and molten lavas (magmas) from within the Earth and Mars. Students survey the variety of magmas present throughout the solar system, including melts that condensed from gas during the formation of the solar system and magmas formed on asteroids. They will discuss theories about the events that led to the formation of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. In addition to weekly readings and several brief problem sets, there will be hands-on experience with meteorites from the asteroid belt, meteorites that may be samples of Mars (one of them rumored to have killed a dog when it landed in Egypt in 1911), and rocks from the moon. In the lab, students recreate the intensely elevated pressure and temperature conditions achieved in a planet’s interior and create their own magma.

Megan Guenther ’21: “The course’s name piqued my interest, as well as planetary formation and geology.”

In the lab, students recreate the intensely elevated pressure and temperature conditions achieved in a planet’s interior and create their own magma.

The class is part of the Freshman Advising Seminar (FAS) program. Grove believes strongly in providing all freshmen the opportunity to build relationships with faculty members in their fields of interest. He was a driving force in an initiative to ensure every MIT freshman is assigned a faculty adviser, either through the FAS program or one-on-one mentoring.

Grove: “A network of mentors is just about the most important thing that one should get out of a college education. These kids should get to know at least one or two faculty members every year well enough that the professors could write them a letter.”

Enrollment is capped at eight freshmen. The seminar is casual—designed as a discussion section that allows active participation. The group meets for two hours every Monday afternoon. Grove brings pizza to each class and begins by asking his students about the past week. He encourages them to unload and vent about difficult tests or problem sets. A sophomore associate advisor is also enrolled in the class. This student acts as a peer mentor, encouraging class discussions and helping to answer any questions first-year students have on navigating MIT.

Guenther: “The advising seminars do a great job of breaking down the barrier between professors and students. I love being able to brag that my advisor has an asteroid named after him.”

Surrounded by shelves of rocks and geologic models, the students study maps of extraterrestrial landscapes and discuss theories about such topics as water on Mars. Each week, students prepare for class with articles that Grove sends out a few days before they meet. The curriculum and readings change as new discoveries in planetary science are made, so Grove—who has taught the course since the early 1990s—rarely leads the same discussions year-to-year.

Associate advisor Hannah Michaye Ledford ’20: “I like how low-key the class is—and it’s nostalgic seeing the freshmen.”

Curriculum: Fall 2017
Week 1: How to use meteorites to date the solar system

Week 2: Discuss the formation of chondrites, meteorites made from the earliest particles of the solar system

Week 3: Learn about the asteroid belt and the meteorites that come from there

Week 4: Study theories for the formation of inner rocky planets

Week 5: Discuss the theories for why and how the moon began orbiting the Earth

Week 6: Understand what we can infer about Martian planetary history from Martian meteorites and the geological formations on Mars

The titular meteorite gets an in-depth investigation this week. (Spoiler alert: After examining news reports and other sources, the class determined the meteorite probably did not, in fact, kill the dog.)

Week 7: Explore the geology of the moon

Week 8: Learn about Mercury from images and information gathered by Mercury Messenger

Grove: “That one I just added since the Mercury Messenger mission brought back all this amazing data. Up until just four or five years ago we didn’t know much about Mercury at all.”

Week 9: Study the formation of other star systems

Grove: “We talk about how the hydrogen in your body is 13.2 billion years old and how we’re all made of stardust.”

Week 10: Watch science fiction movies that feature bad planetary science

Selections include Red Planet (2000) and Armageddon (1998).

Week 11: Make magma

Grove: “I take them into my lab and show them how we melt rocks under all kinds of different conditions. We use these fun and idiosyncratic pieces of equipment that we’ve built over the years.”

Story Image: Grove examines a map of the Martian landscape with students, from left, Kai Masterson, Megan Guenther, Anmol Maini, and Ulyana Piterbarg. Photo: Sarah Bastille


Timothy Grove is a geologist interested in the processes that have led to the chemical evolution of the Earth and other planets including the Moon, Mars, Mercury, and meteorite parent bodies.  His approach to understanding planetary differentiation is to combine field, petrologic, and geochemical studies of igneous rocks with high pressure, high temperature experimental petrology.

Grove is recognized for his contributions to understanding magma generation on Earth, other planets, and early-formed planetesimals. He is known particularly for his ability to combine exquisite and difficult petrologic experimentation with fieldwork; and, his creativity in driving thought on generation mechanisms of magmas in new directions. He is highly regarded for his work on the role of water in magma genesis.


Making Mercurial Magma - Cooking up rocks in MIT's Experimental Petrology Lab (video credit: Helen Hill)

MIT Experimental Petrology Lab

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