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RAS PN09/40(NAM27): UK CAN prepare for Mars sample return with cosmochemical analysis network launch

Last Updated on Monday, 29 March 2010 15:25
Published on Tuesday, 21 April 2009 00:00
chondrule_small.jpgThe UK CAN prepare for Mars sample return as cosmochemical analysis network is launched

The UK Cosmochemical Analysis Network (UK CAN) is to be launched at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science at the University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield.

UK CAN will open up world-class chemical analysis facilities to members of the network, enabling UK scientists to study extraterrestrial materials in all its forms and prepare for samples returned by future missions.  The chemical composition of these samples gives insight into some of the biggest ongoing questions about our Solar System, including the timescale on which it evolved, the processes that formed the planets, the early activity of the Sun, the history of water and the origins of life.

UK CAN is chaired by Monica Grady, Professor in Planetary Sciences at the Open University.  "We currently have access to extraterrestrial material in the form of meteorites, lunar rocks, as well as particles from the solar wind, interplanetary space and the tails of comets collected by space missions like Genesis and Stardust.  Analysing and comparing the chemical-make up of these samples gives us all sorts of information about the formation and evolution of planetary systems and the relationship between life and its planetary habitat," said Professor Grady.

The launch of UK CAN follows three years of preparatory work by the institutions hosting the facilities, the Open University, the University of Manchester, Imperial College and the Natural History Museum in London, to develop instruments, techniques and sample analysis protocols.  The project is funded jointly by the four institutions and the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

"Sample return is a major part of the Solar System exploration strategy for us in the UK, as well as for the European Space Agency and the International space community. UK CAN will bring together the expertise that we have already built up in the UK and allow us to develop the infrastructure and skills to deal with the challenges of future missions, such as samples returned from the surface of Mars," said Professor Grady.

As well as providing facilities and data-archiving, UK CAN will offer training for scientists at all stages of their careers, providing students and post-doctoral researchers with transferable skills and techniques.

"We want to use UK CAN to encourage a new generation of cosmochemists and planetary scientists and so we will be offering project work for undergraduates and postgraduates, where they will be able to work with these rare samples under supervision.  Even if they go on to have careers outside academia, they will carry forward the technological competencies that they have developed into the workforce," said Professor Grady.

The state-of-the-art facilities have been developed to analyse the mineral and chemical abundances in minute samples that may be less than a thousandth of a millimetre across.  The X-ray diffraction microscope at the Natural History Museum will be used to map the distribution of minerals in very thinly sliced sections of meteorites. The Open University's mass spectrometer will be used for high spatial resolution analysis of the chemical and isotopic composition of samples.  The University of Manchester's double mass spectrometer is the only one of its kind in the world and will analyse the structure of large organic molecules.

"The UK is a world leader in developing this type of instrumentation and that's something that we should be proud of. We hope that UK CAN will further enhance the profile of planetary science in the UK population and stimulate interest in science and careers in science for the next generation," said Professor Grady.

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The UK CAN project is managed by the UK CAN Management Committee.  Current members are Professor Monica Grady (Chair), Lindsay Dannatt (STFC), Dr Ian Lyon (Manchester University), Dr Ian Franchi (Open University) and Dr Gretchen Benedix (Natural History Museum).


More than 1000 astronomers and space scientists will gather at the University of Hertfordshire for the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (EWASS), incorporating the 2009 Royal Astronomical Society National Astronomy Meeting (RAS NAM 2009) and the European Astronomical Society Joint Meeting (JENAM 2009). The meeting runs from 20th to 23rd April 2009.

EWASS is held in conjunction with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP) and Magnetosphere Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial Physics (MIST) meetings. The conference includes scientific sessions organised by the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and the European Space Agency (ESA).

EWASS is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the University of
Hertfordshire, Hatfield.

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.


Professor Monica Grady
Faculty of Science
Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes
Tel: +44 (0) 1908 659251
Fax: +4401908858022
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.




A thin slice (less than 30 microns thick) from a primitive meteorite, showing a chondrule, one of the building blocks of planets. The width of the image is 2mm.


The TOF-SIMS instrument at Univ Manchester. Time-of-Flight Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer, for looking at the elemental composition of material at sub-micron resolution. Contact Dr Ian Lyon, univ Manchester for more details


The X-Ray diffraction microscope at the Natural History Museum. it is used to determine the structure of minerals, and the composition of mixtures of minerals. Contact Dr Gretchen Benedix-Bland (NHM) or Dr Phil Bland (Imperial college)


The NanoSIMS at the Open University. it measures the isotopic composition of material at the nanometer scale. Contact Prof Monica Grady or Dr Ian Franchi for more details.