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Lesson Plan: Using Remote Mössbauer Spectroscopy

To introduce students to the uses of Mössbauer spectroscopy to indentify minerals on remote planetary surfaces.

Each student picks three minerals from a list of 50 candidates likely to be found on Mars. Students research the conditions under which their minerals form. Mössbauer spectra of these minerals are compared, and students decide if the spectra of their minerals will overlap, or if their minerals have spectra that have unique features.

Key Concepts:

  • Rocks are made up of minerals. Different combinations of minerals form rocks in different types of environments. Thus, knowing the mineralogy of a planet tells us a great deal about the conditions under which it formed and the starting composition of that planet.
  • Based on spectra acquired from orbiting satellites, as well as from martian meteorites, scientists have suggested the presence of about 50 minerals likely to be found on the surface of Mars. Some of these minerals contain the element hydrogen. The presence of hydrogen in a mineral's composition usually tells us that it formed in the presence of water. If water was/is present on Mars, that may have provided a place for life to form.
  • A Mössbauer spectrometer was included on the Mars Explorations Rovers, as well as the Beagle 2 lander, in order to identify the iron-bearing phases that are present. Scientists will match the spectra of mineral mixtures (=rocks) acquired on the martian surface with data acquired in terrestrial laboratories.
  • Unfortunately, not all Mössbauer spectra are unique; some minerals look very similar because the iron atoms in their structures are in very similar sites. Also, the Mössbauer effect is temperature-sensitive -- but only a handful of spectra acquired at Mars surface temperatures exist.


  • Researching how minerals form
  • Comparing mineral spectra
  • Predicting which minerals will be found on Mars, and whether or not they will be uniquely recognized by Mössbauer spectroscopy


  • web access, or printouts of spectra from Mars Mineral Spectroscopy web site
  • web access, or mineral identification handbooks
  • clear transparencies

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