Sunday, 25 March 2012

Top Mars Explorers at NASA Ames

Chris McKay and Kevin Fong, NASA Ames Research Center
For the recent BBC Radio 4 series Scott's Legacy, Kevin Fong and I spent a day interviewing Mars researchers at the NASA Ames Research Centre, south of San Francisco.  First was leading Mars specialist Chris McKay whose astrobiological science involves not only robotic probes such as the Phoenix Lander but work in the dry valleys of Antarctica.  They are the environments on Earth most similar to conditions on Mars.

Chris was a brilliant interviewee but, needless to say, only snippets ended up in the broadcast programme.  Here is more of the interview.  Particularly interesting are his thoughts on why humans should go to Mars - it's not for science fundamentally, he argues, but for questions about human destiny.

Just down the corridor from Chris, we later interviewed Jennifer Heldmann who studies both the Moon and Mars.

Jennifer Heldmann and Kevin Fong
In the Radio 4 programme, we just had Jen talking about water ice in the south polar craters on the Moon.  Apparently there's about twice the amount of water in the 'soil' in them as there is in Saharan soil.  That's enough to sustain exploitation for rocket fuel, drinking water and (I'm guessing) tomato plants for a moon base.  Anyway, there was no time in the programme to hear her talk about water on Mars - including its likely role in making the extraordinary Martian gullies that have been spotted in the last few years.

All the evidence points them being created in the here and now.  There could be one being carved as you read this.

Listen to Jen tell Kevin about the gullies, the possibility of deep aquifers on Mars and where she would choose to visit if SpaceX gave her ticket for their forthcoming 'Mars for the Average Person' package.

Just beyond the Ames security perimeter is the Mars Institute, where planetary scientist Pascal Lee works in his Mars image-bedecked office.

Pascal Lee and Kevin Fong at the Mars Institute, Mountain View
The picture to the right of Pascal's shoulder is one of his paintings.  It shows the view of Mars from its moon Phobos.


I have to include an extra picture of a man who brings his dog to work with him.  Why aren't all employers as enlightened as the Mars Institute?

Pascal, Ping Pong and Kevin
Listen to some of the interview that never made it into the final Scott's Legacy programme.  Pascal and Kevin touch on subjects such as Mars-inspired art and soft furnishings, and the challenge of developing a space suit suitable for geologising on the Red Planet.  The contemporary space suit would weigh so much in Martian gravity that astronauts on Mars would be barely able to move.

 In this interview, Pascal also describes some of the research which the Mars Institute and NASA do on the dry, desolate Devon Island in the high Arctic.  Centred on a great meteorite impact crater, this is the Haughton-Mars Projectaimed at preparing for human missions to Mars, sometime - God knows when - in the future.

Humongous hangars, me and Kevin Fong

1 comment:

  1. i'm impressed with the photos and the audio samples on this story. is the audio widget something you add later or comes as standard? how can I get one for my blog? rami