Tag Archives: Mars

A Journey to Mars

A guest blog post from Nancy Williams, CaSE

Last Friday evening (14 November 2014), Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, gave the Campaign for Science and Engineering’s 24th Annual Distinguished Lecture (listen here). In front of a packed IMAX theatre at the Science Museum, Ellen took us through some of the extraordinary advances in science, technology and engineering resulting from exploration of space, and the challenges even now being worked on by scientists across the world driven by NASA’s journey to Mars.

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, in front of the Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: CaSE

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, in front of the Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: CaSE

One of the great unknowns for us here on Earth is whether we’re alone in the universe – NASA’s Journey to Mars mission is working to get closer to the answer. Why Mars? The obvious answer would be that it is our planetary neighbour but what makes it an exciting prospect in the search for life beyond earth – is water. Mars is marked all over with signs that water once persisted on the surface – the ragged surface on the red planet could be compared to some of the great geological masterpieces shaped by bodies of water over millennia here on Earth – and then in 2008 the Phoenix lander took a sample of ice.

How do we begin such a search? What next steps do we need to take?

Ellen began by highlighting the importance of international co-operation in order to achieve this grand goal of going to Mars. She outlined tremendous work already achieved through combined efforts – particularly noting the extraordinary Philae landing this month as well as the ongoing work through the International Space Station, saying that in her view such a collaboration is worthy of a Nobel Prize. Although they are extraordinary, exploration by rovers and landers is very slow and limited – having scientists on Mars would dramatically change the scope of exploration and the timescale of discoveries.

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, talks at the Science Museum. Credit: CaSE

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, talks at the Science Museum. Credit: CaSE

We heard of the science, engineering and technology challenges that NASA has mapped out and how they, along with international and commercial partners, are going about finding answers. Getting people safely landed on Mars (and back again!) is not possible, yet – but Ellen said she expects it to happen in the 2030s. To get there, the challenges range from how to safely land a heavy craft in a thin and changing atmosphere, and how to keep Mars clean from contamination by microorganisms from earth, to ensuring that astronauts not only survive the eight month journey and landing but are healthy and able to work once they arrive – for instance combatting the muscle wasting and bone density loss that usually occurs in microgravity.

Another challenge is making the mission as efficient as possible – mass affects everything. NASA astronauts are already able to recycle 80% of the water they use, but as Ellen said – don’t think about that for too long. Other challenges you might not think about straight away – such as making sure dust from Mars isn’t brought into the spacecraft. But when you think about it, at zero gravity dust could cause havoc! But perhaps the dust could be put to good use – with the developments in 3D printers a next step being investigated as part of the ‘in situ resource utilisation’ research is how to use Martian rock to manufacture spare parts, rather than having to transport powder manufactured on Earth.

In the post-lecture Q&A one of the questions was on the timescale of decisions on future missions and investments. This highlighted the disconnect between the short-term, politically driven timescales of public funding and the long-term nature of NASA projects – a challenge not unfamiliar to UK scientists.

And of course in order to achieve NASA’s mission to Mars, and meet the many other great challenges faced closer to home, we need young people with creativity and ambition to become the next generation scientists and engineers. Ellen was animated about importance of inspiring young people about science and certainly did her bit on Friday (I saw one little girl grinning ear to ear holding a shiny new NASA badge)!

It is hard to do justice to the inspirational talk given by Dr Stofan in the awesome IMAX theatre at the Science Museum, so I recommend listening to the audio recording of the lecture itself (here) and you will have to imagine it is accompanied by wonderful images that are 17m tall and literally out of this world.

Obituary: Colin Pillinger (1943 – 2014)

By Doug Millard, curator of Space and Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs. 

Colin Pillinger, the planetary scientist, has died age 70.

Pillinger, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005, began his career at Nasa, analysing samples of moon rock on the Apollo programme, and made headlines in 1989 when he and colleagues at the Open University found traces of organic material in a Mars meteorite that had fallen to Earth.

But he is best known for his remarkable and dogged battle to launch Beagle 2 Mars lander, named after HMS Beagle, the vessel that carried Charles Darwin during two of the expeditions that would lead to his theory of natural selection.

A model of the pioneering but ill-fated probe, designed to sniff for signs of life, can be found in the Exploring Space gallery of the Science Museum.

A model of the Beagle 2 Mars lander, on display in the Science Museum.

A model of the Beagle 2 Mars lander, on display in the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

The instruments, such as its camera, microscope, robot arms, mass spectrometer, gas chromatography, drill, and electronics had to fit inside the a compact 33 kg saucer which would unfurl on the surface of the Red Planet .

Although the craft was successfully deployed from the Mars Express Orbiter in December 2003, on which it was piggybacked, confirmation of a successful landing on Christmas Day never came and it became another of the many failed Mars missions.

But it does tell you a great deal about Pillinger’s remarkable personality. He made it happen through a mix of persistence, personality, endless lobbying and show-business flair, enlisting the help of half of the Britpop band Blur (who composed the call sign) and the artist Damian Hirst (who created the spots on the instrument’s camera calibration card).

Beagle 2 did succeed brilliantly in its secondary and perhaps more significant role: enthusing the British about space. It was Colin perhaps more than anyone else who showed the full value and importance of space exploration, and how it fits with that very human capacity to dream.

His wife Judith, and children Shusanah and Nicolas, issued a statement: “It is with profound sadness that we are telling friends and colleagues that Colin, whilst sitting in the garden yesterday afternoon, suffered a severe brain haemorrhage resulting in a deep coma.  He died peacefully this afternoon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, without regaining consciousness. “

British science has lost a star.

Mission to Mars

Tanya, our Learning Resources Project Developer, blogs on potential missions to Mars and discussing them in the classroom. For more on our Talk Science teachers’ courses, click here.

We are in an interesting period of space travel; news from the past year has been filled with findings from the Curiosity rover and stories of possible manned missions to Mars. For me the release of Mars Explorer Barbie confirmed ‘Mars Mania’ is upon us. There are big questions surrounding the ethics and feasibility of sending humans to Mars, however proposals keep emerging which hope to do so, many of which are private enterprises.

One interesting example is the Inspiration Mars Foundation, which in 2018 plans to perform a Mars flyby, over a period of 501 days, with a married couple as its crew. Another, Mars One, seems to have really captured the public’s imagination.

It may sound like science fiction, but Mars One hopes to establish a colony on Mars by 2023. The plan is to use existing technologies, such as solar power and water recycling, to create a permanent habitat for the astronauts. Over the next ten years they will send rovers, satellites, living units, life support systems and supply units to Mars ready for the arrival of the first settlers in 2023.

Three generations of Mars rovers

Three generations of Mars rovers, including Curiousity far right. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Applications for the first round of astronauts closed recently; over 200,000 people, from more than 140 countries applied. Six teams of four will be selected for training, with further opportunities opening every year. The crew will learn medical procedures, how to grow food on Mars, and how to maintain the habitat and rovers. In 2024 a second crew will depart Earth, with four new settlers arriving every two years until 2033, when 20 people should be living on Mars.

This incredibly challenging mission is estimated to cost $6 billion. Interestingly part of the funding will come from a reality TV show which will follow the teams from their recruitment through to their first few years living on Mars. In addition to high costs the team will face Mars’ fiercely hostile environment; high levels of radiation, low gravity, little atmosphere, high impact from the solar winds, and water sources frozen underground. If successful the astronauts will make history, but it won’t be easy and they will never breathe fresh air again.

Picture of mars, taken by the Spirit rover.  Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

Picture of mars, taken by the Spirit rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

The mission throws up many interesting questions from both a personal and technological perspective. Maybe try hosting your own debate on the subject, or if you’re a teacher, you could try raising the issues with your students using one of our discussion formats.

Should we send humans to Mars?
How would you feel if a loved one volunteered for a one-way mission to mars?
Do you think that current technologies could sustain life on Mars?

If you want to build your skills for using discussion in the classroom further, we are running the Talk Science teachers’ course in London on 29th November. For details of how to sign up click here.