Belfast Telegraph

Ulster University boffins join hunt for life on Mars

The ExoMars rover
The ExoMars rover

By Christopher Leebody

Ulster University will be at the forefront of searching for signs of life on Mars after being awarded funding to take part in an upcoming European Space Agency project.

The ExoMars rover - called Rosalind Franklin in honour of the English scientist famous for her pivotal work on DNA structure - is set to start its journey to the red planet in the summer of 2020.

There it will search for signs of past and present life using its highly advanced PanCam camera attached to the rover's mast.

After competing with other UK universities for the "extremely competitive" funding, Ulster University was awarded £375k from the UK Space Agency to assist with the three-year project.

Ulster's main role will be leading the way in modelling the wind patterns on the planet, to assist in determining the route the vehicle takes while traversing the barren landscape after it is scheduled to land in 2021.

The work of the Environmental Sciences Research Institute at Ulster University will begin work on the project in October in collaboration with both The Open University and the University of Aberystwyth.

Speaking about the award, Ulster University lead researcher Professor Derek Jackson said: "It is extremely prestigious funding. The process was extremely competitive. It also gives us now a really strong link into space operations in the European Space Agency.

"Ultimately the work we end up producing over the next few years will help the actual rover in terms of its destination and actual findings.

"The rover's main function is to find evidence of life on Mars. We are dealing with a planet mainly moulded and sculpted by wind only. Wind has been the only agent of change.

"What that has done has revealed probably old evidence, if it is there, of any primitive life on Mars."

Professor Jackson highlighted groundbreaking research into wind modelling tecnhiques the institute had undertaken over the years in which replicating the effect of wind on the Martian sand will be crucial, which also helped to secure this latest project.

He explained: "Up until this point no one has been able to model the wind in a very detailed way. What we as scientists at Ulster are doing is to model in a very, very fine detail where that wind is moving and how much it is pushing material around.

"The techniques and various methods we have devised at Ulster have been devised on Earth. It's almost like Magilligan to Mars. We can use the techniques we developed on Earth and take those techniques to readjust for Martian conditions."

It is hoped that the groundbreaking work undertaken during the project will foster future relationships between the space agencies and Ulster University and open the door for new endevours.

"We are at a starting point almost for future work, not just for UK, but European research projects," Professor Jackson added.

"It is a fantastic way of raising awareness of the Northern Ireland research potential and also the research activities we are currently involved in."

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