NI university on board for Mars mission

An ExoMars Rover will carry out experiments on Mars in 2021 with the help of research from Ulster University in Coleraine. Photo credit: ESA
An ExoMars Rover will carry out experiments on Mars in 2021 with the help of research from Ulster University in Coleraine. Photo credit: ESA
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A scientific project looking at wind flow at Magilligan Strand has led to an NI university getting involved with the Rover mission to Mars in 2021.

Researchers at Ulster University in Coleraine have been awarded £375,000 funding from the UK Space Agency to assist the European Space Agency in determining the optimal route for the ExoMars Rover.

Professor Derek Jackson

Professor Derek Jackson

The partnership came about because of a software programme developed by Ulster University enabling them to model airflow going over the sand dunes and beaches at Magilligan.

Lead researcher Professor Derek Jackson said: “That sparked an interest about five or six years ago from some Americans working in Arizona, who asked could the software be used on Mars. I said, ‘if you give me the right data I could do it anywhere you want me to’.”

The study featured in several scientific journals and Professor Jackson, who specialises in Coastal Geomorphology, was invited to speak at global conferences.

It resulted in Ulster University coming on board for a three-year project in partnership with The Open University and University of Aberystwyth which aims to understand how wind has shaped the Oxia Planum site on Mars where the European Space Agency ExoMars rover will land in March 2021 and begin searching for minerals, water, and signs of past and present life.

Professor Jackson said: “As loose sand deposits can be a navigational hazard to the rover during its traverse across the surface, our work will assist the European Space Agency in deciding the optimal route the Rover may take over the months and years after landing.

“The parallel objective is to understand where life might be. Where the surface has been eroded it can reveal very ancient signs of life.

“Wind is the most important erosion agent on Mars. It has been for many, many years. There is no flowing liquid on Mars any more.”

Asked if he believed there could be life on Mars, he said: “I’ll believe there is life on Mars only when I see evidence of it.

“Using science you can pinpoint where the likely areas are going to be, remote sensing from the satellites is a really good guide as a starting point but the Rover is the next best thing to actually being there.

“What we can do is guide it and give it a better steer as to where it should be going and doing experiments, taking samples.”

He added: “It is possible for humans to land on Mars, all of these Rovers are blazing a trail for future missions which will have humans on board who will walk around on the surface.

“The timescale is predicted to be within the next 15 to 20 years.”

Of the air flow software which led to the university getting involved in the Mars mission, Professor Jackson said: “Earth is a fantastic analogue for Mars.

“You can use a lot of the environments on Earth to test theories that could also be occurring on Mars.

“The Magilligan story is a very good way of developing a model on Earth then adjusting certain parameters – atmosphere, density, gravity – to use on another planet.”