Wherever there is water on Earth, scientists have found life. So water on Mars offers a tantalizing possibility of extraterrestrial life. 

Digging deeper into the history of water on the Red Planet will be the focus of ASU cosmochemist Meenakshi Wadhwa’s research with India’s premier research institute for the space sciences, a collaboration made possible by her Fulbright Award.

Wadhwa’s research will involve studies of a unique Mars meteorite, one with the most amount of water of any of the known Martian meteorites.

Her Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Award will enable her to spend four months in 2016 at the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, India.

“It is my hope that my collaborative research at India’s Physical Research Laboratory will open future opportunities for my students and postdoctoral researchers — and possibly even others more broadly in SESE — to collaborate with students and researchers there,” says Wadhwa, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the director of the Center for Meteorite Studies.

Relying on a technique known as isotope analysis to measure the ratios of isotopes (which are two or more forms of the same element that contain different numbers of neutrons), Wadhwa has made significant contributions to our understanding of processes involved in the evolution of our solar system.

During her time in India, Wadhwa will be working with students and colleagues at the Physical Research Laboratory to understand the history of water on Mars based on studies of meteorite NWA 7034, also known as “Black Beauty.” 

“We have only just begun our investigations of this meteorite — it was only discovered in 2013, and the Center for Meteorite Studies acquired a slice of it last year,” Wadhwa said.

ASU’s Center for Meteorite Studies holds a 20-gram cut of Black Beauty. The bulk chemical composition of this meteorite closely matches that of the Martian crust.

Using a combination of state-of-the-art analytical facilities at the Physical Research Laboratory and ASU, she will be developing methods for precise analyses of the abundance and isotope composition of water in the fine-grained minerals in this Mars rock, thought to have formed as surface regolith – the layer of loose material covering bedrock ­– on that planet.

Wadhwa also hopes to utilize these methods for analyses of other samples in the collection of the Physical Research Laboratory and the Geological Survey of India that are not as readily available in other museum collections.

Wadhwa’s Fulbright project will build upon recent work in her research group on understanding the water content and hydrogen isotopes in Mars meteorites, especially in major minerals in these rocks that typically do not accommodate much water in their structure.

Each year, the U.S. Fulbright Scholar Program awards about 800 highly sought-after teaching and/or research grants to selected U.S. faculty and experienced professionals, enabling them to engage in collaborative studies and research in more than 125 countries. Award recipients are chosen for exemplary achievements and proven leadership in their fields.

Wadhwa’s most notable recognitions include a 2005 Guggenheim Fellowship, Nier Prize of the Meteoritical Society, Fellow of the Meteoritical Society, the Antarctic Service Medal (for two field seasons collecting meteorites in Antarctica) and an asteroid named 8356 Wadhwa by the International Astronomical Union.

She is only the second ASU recipient of this award, which is part of the Fulbright Scholar Program and is jointly funded by the government of India. The first ASU recipient was Stephen MacKinnon, professor emeritus in the department of history.