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JohnPaul Sleiman ’21 awarded S.C. Space Grant to study conditions on Mars

JohnPaul Sleiman '21 conducts research in Furman lab thanks to money from an S.C. Space Grant
JohnPaul Sleiman '21 works in a lab in the Charles H. Townes Science Center.

JohnPaul Sleiman ’21 is confident people will set foot on Mars in his lifetime. In fact, he’d very much like to be one of them.

“(I would) definitely go. No questions asked,” Sleiman said. “Even if it was a one-way ticket I would go.”

He’ll have to be patient. Barring a miraculous technological advancement, it will be at least two decades before anyone could possibly visit the planet. So, in the meantime, Sleiman has to be content with trying to replicate a little bit of Mars here on Earth, which is exactly what he is doing in a lab at Furman thanks to a grant from the South Carolina Space Grant Consortium.

Part of NASA’s National Space Grant College and Fellowship Project, the S.C. Space Grant allows students and professors to apply for funding to research a topic over an academic year. Sleiman received an award for his work studying the magnesium/calcium ratio in calcite to understand its formation under varying environmental conditions – including those that theoretically once existed on Mars.

Professor of Earth and Environmental Science Chris Romanek '82
Professor of Earth, Environmental and Sustainability Sciences Chris Romanek ’82.

“This is a proposal he wrote himself, so the money goes directly to him,” Furman Earth, Environmental and Sustainability Sciences Professor Chris Romanek ’82, Sleiman’s advisor, said.

Sleiman is growing carbonate minerals under tightly controlled conditions, with the hope they will one day be compared to calcites harvested from the surface of Mars by the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover. The analysis could determine the past atmospheric and hydrospheric composition of the planet and answer the long-asked question of whether liquid water used to be present on its surface.

“On paper my research is simple, and it’s been done before by other scientists in different ways. They’ve looked at the partial pressure of carbon dioxide gas as a control factor, and others have just looked at the ratio of aqueous Mg/Ca as a control factor,” Sleiman said. “I’m looking at everything, and my hope is that if they find calcium carbonate on the surface, they could use my research or research like mine to help determine the past environments in which those calcium carbonates formed.”

The Perseverance rover launched July 28 and is scheduled to land on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021. A different mission (or two) will be launched to eventually retrieve the samples Perseverance collects and return them to Earth.

Sleiman is a double major in earth, environmental and sustainability sciences, with a focus on geology and physics, and his research doubles as his earth, environmental and sustainability sciences senior thesis. Romanek was introduced to planetary and space sciences as a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and money from the grant will allow them to travel there to use the center’s state-of-the-art equipment.

“Most carbonate minerals form in water bodies. The sediments in our oceans, a great percentage of them are made of carbonate minerals, and we can analyze those carbonate minerals to understand something about the waters that those carbonates formed in, the temperatures or maybe even the geochemical composition of the waters. That’s even more specific to JohnPaul’s research,” Romanek said. “Eventually some of those materials (from Mars) will be brought back to Earth, and the more we know about how they grow in the laboratory, the more we will be able to translate that information to the surface of Mars.”

A Greenville, South Carolina, native, Sleiman dreams of one day working at NASA and plans to begin pursuit of a Ph.D. after he graduates from Furman. The summer closure of campus as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic forced a delay in his research, but Sleiman returned to the lab in late August and has been working with Romanek to make up for lost time.

He arrived at Furman planning to become an engineer, but seeing a senior conducting astrophysics and astronomy research in the physics department, combined with a geology class, put Sleiman on his current path.

“I was like, ‘How can I combine these two?’” he said. “And I found my career path to be a geophysicist.”

Carbonate materials have already been identified by rovers on Mars, and Sleiman is convinced there were once oceans there. And with water comes a chance for life.

“We can tell that just from observing from space that various geomorphological surface features on the planet may be attributed to liquid water. It’s not as much of a mystery as you would think, actually,” he said. “A lot of the water probably evaporated, but then there’s the belief that it exists  as groundwater or ices.”

Should Sleiman’s work ever be used to analyze the first materials brought from Mars to Earth, it would be a significant scientific accomplishment.

“I suspect, based on the cost of everything to get them back, they’ll be the most valuable things that ever existed on Earth, and what’s really important is they’ll be the first materials we’ve ever collected  from another planetary body,” Romanek said. “It will change the way we understand Mars … and he may be intimately involved in multiple aspects of those steps.”

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