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18-27. Evaluating mineral resources on Mars for exploration and colonization


Closing Date: January 6, 2020

This Research Opportunity will be filled depending on the availability of funds. All application materials must be submitted through USAJobs by 11:59 pm, US Eastern Standard Time, on the closing date.


In-Situ Resource Utilization or ISRU is the buzzword describing initiatives to use Martian mineral resources to bring the cost of future exploration down to affordable levels.  It costs $4,000 dollars to transport one kilogram of supplies to low Earth orbit and considerably more to send that kilogram of supplies to Mars, making it imperative to use in situ Martian resources.  Researchers are testing ideas of harvesting minerals from the surface of Mars to produce habitat infrastructure that would protect inhabitants from gene-damaging solar radiation, cryogenic-like night-time temperatures, and micro-meteorite bombardment.  These innovative concepts include manufacturing bricks and ceramics from Martian clays, glass and fiberglass from quartz and Fe-free opaline rocks, and antifreeze from perchlorates. Water ice could provide not only drinking water but also hydrogen, from electrolysis, to combine with atmospheric CO2 to produce fuel or plastics for use in 3D printing of equipment and spare parts.  Clathrates could provide both fuel and water. Magnesium from evaporite deposits could be used to create magnesium hydride as a way to store hydrogen.  Zeolites might be used for energy storage in batteries and extraction of water from the Martian atmosphere. Nickel from nickel-iron meteorites could be used as a catalyst in the production of methane and ethane fuels, while ores would be refined to produce metal for equipment.  REEs could be used to produce magnets for electronics and motors, and also for phosphors in screens and LED lights. REEs are usually associated with thorium, which was recently proposed to fuel nuclear power sources on Mars. In summary, a variety of in situ minerals will need to be utilized to fabricate solar cells, electrical wire, structural beams, rods, plates, bricks, cables, pipes, and storage vessels for water, with robots doing the habitat construction ahead of human arrival.  

Discovery of in situ resources on Mars is ongoing but the task of finding potential habitat sites within working distance of them is in its infancy.  Using rovers to find these resources is like looking for a needle in a haystack given that the surface area of Mars is nearly equal to that of Earth’s dry land.  In contrast, remote sensing done from Martian orbit is a cost effective means to find these resources without setting a foot on the surface. Upwards of 40 minerals have been identified on the Martian surface by orbital spectrometers.  Over the past decade, the NASA MRO CRISM imaging spectrometer has created a planetwide VSWIR-MIR (0.4 to 4 μm) hyperspectral data set of the Martian surface that can be tapped to map the mineral deposits necessary for future Mars exploration and eventual colonization.  This unprecedented dataset is available via the NASA Planetary Data System, with variable spectral resolution covering up to 554 channels at spatial resolutions down to 17 x 17 m pixels. Available broadband visible image data from the MRO CTX, Mars Express HRSC, and MRO HiRISE instruments can provide spatial context down to 6, 2, and 0.5 m/pixel respectively.  Altogether, these datasets are ripe for locating the mineral resources necessary to build the infrastructure for future human exploration and eventual colonization on Mars.

Orbital exploration for Martian mineral resources on a global scale is a far-reaching endeavor that positions the USGS as a leader in extraterrestrial mineral exploration just as human exploration and colonization is moving from the concept stage to near future reality.  The USGS Denver Spectroscopy Group is a world leader in the art of imaging spectroscopy of the Earth and Planets with one of the largest mineral spectral databases in the world that can be tapped to map the mineralogy of the Martian surface.  

The Denver Spectroscopy Group is seeking a postdoctoral fellow to conduct research focused on creating mineral maps of the Martian surface using orbital imaging spectrometer and broadband data emphasizing key minerals to pinpoint sites most favorable for habitat location.  A related research topic would involve spectrally mapping relict hydrothermal deposits to answer stubborn questions about their origin and where to focus future rover efforts to potentially discover evidence of past life.

Interested applicants are strongly encouraged to contact the Research Advisor early in the application process to discuss project ideas.

Proposed Duty Station: Lakewood, CO

Areas of PhD: Geology, planetary geology, imaging spectroscopy, and mineral spectroscopy or related fields (candidates holding a Ph.D. in other disciplines, but with extensive knowledge and skills relevant to the Research Opportunity may be considered).

Qualifications: Applicants must meet the qualifications for:  Research Geologist, Research Geophysicist, Research Physical Scientist

(This type of research is performed by those who have backgrounds for the occupations stated above.  However, other titles may be applicable depending on the applicant's background, education, and research proposal. The final classification of the position will be made by the Human Resources specialist.)

Human Resources Office Contact: Audrey Tsujita, 916-278-9395,