£2m UK Space Agency funding for Mars exploration projects

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The UK Space Agency has announced it will provide a total of £2m for nine science projects associated with Mars exploration.

According to a statement, the scheme will enhance the UK’s science capabilities; help the UK understand the Martian environment; and give scientists the opportunity to search for traces of past and present life.

‘This initiative demonstrates the continuing strength and relevance of UK planetary science,’ said Dr Dave Parker, director of technology science and exploration at the UK Space Agency. ‘The UK should be proud to have such a dynamic research community and we are delighted to support researchers at the forefront of exploring the Red Planet.’

Two of the awards will enable UK researchers to benefit from NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission. The new US rover — ‘Curiosity’ — is due to land on Mars in August 2012, and will deliver vital data for scientists assessing the viability of life on the planet.

Imperial College’s Prof Sanjeev Gupta is a participating scientist in this mission and has secured UK Space Agency funding for his work analysing the evolution of the Martian surface.

Dr John Bridges and Prof Simon Kelley from Leicester University and the Open University have also been selected by NASA as MSL scientists, and will receive funding for their work studying water-rock interactions.

Commenting on the award, Bridges said: ‘This will allow us to participate in what is, in my view, the most important and exciting robotic landing mission ever attempted to date. MSL has the potential to reveal whether Mars was ever habitable for microbial life and determine if there were standing bodies of water for long periods of time.

‘We were selected as participating scientists because of the results from our UK-funded research on Martian meteorites and the interaction of water with the Mars crust. We will work to communicate our results about the effects of water at the MSL site to other scientists, but also to wider communities: the Mars research supported by the UK Space Agency has an enduring fascination for many people.’

Fellowships were awarded to Dr Lewis Dartnell from Leicester University, Dr Pete Grindrod of University College London, and Dr Karen Olsson-Francis of the Open University. Each fellow will work for three years on key scientific questions focused on the search for life on Mars.

Dartnell said: ‘The fellowship will allow me to really focus on research. Raman [space instrument] is particularly exciting as it can spot signs of extreme life in the most hostile environments on Earth — and has lots of other applications, such as detecting drugs — but has not yet been deployed on a planetary mission.’

‘The ExoMars rover will be the first to carry a Raman instrument, and excitingly it will be capable of finding signatures of ancient life in underground samples brought up by the probe’s drill. One big unknown, however, is how these distinctive biosignatures might be changed or erased by cosmic radiation on the Martian surface, and this is what I’ll be looking at.’

Charles Cockell from Edinburgh University, Mark Sephton from Imperial College London and Mark Price from Kent University all received awards to support their work, looking respectively at the habitability of Mars; the application of Mars-bound instruments in Earth-based experiments; and the chemistry of meteor and comet impacts on the Martian surface. Axel Hagermann of the Open University received an award to enable his study of the Martian polar caps, and the potential of these regions to support life.