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Meeting Notes : National Oceanographic Centre - Life on Mars webinar

In our fourth webinar of 2021, TechSolent was lucky enough to get Dr Jessica Whiteside from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC – part of Uni of Southampton) to discuss the role she is playing on the Mars Perseverance Rover project through 2020 and beyond. You don’t get a cooler topic of discussion for local tech people, there was a lot of excitement about this project.

The NOC leverages technology to analyse ocean, climate and geological changes over time to identify patterns and understand our world, and other worlds, better. In this Mars Project, Jessica’s team are looking to identify whether there is evidence of life on mars now or in the past, to try and give us some clues on how our world was formed, and whether Mars could sustain life in the future. Beam me up Scotty.

Jessica walked us through the objectives of the Perseverance project, and what technology is deployed within the Perseverance Rover, which is quite mind boggling in itself. Radar, high definition cameras, laser cutting equipment, oxygen generation facilities – all in the size of an SUV.

The talk was split into 3 core subjects:

- What is our fascination with Mars?

- Why Perseverance is “The Swiss Army Knife on Wheels”?

- What evidence are we searching for of life-favouring conditions?

Mars was created at the same time as Earth, and there is a building theory that its similar age implies a similar “birthing” process to Earth including the potential for historical life. Today however, Mars is a desert planet with little atmosphere and a mostly carbon dioxide based surface, with methane underground. There is evidence of water historically on the planet, and the planet has icy poles occasionally when its axis tilt is appropriate (it deviates on its axis from 0 degrees to up to 60 degrees, which plays havoc with the climate). Temperature varies substantially, with a variation of 20 to 30 degrees from ground level to a few metres up, and dust storms frequently occur that can consume up to half of the planet’s surface. Probably not great for a holiday.

That said, of all of the “nearby” planets, it looks like the best option for future habitation. Geological evidence shows a real similarity to Earth, and although it would be complex to overcome some of these climate issues, we have the technology available now. Perseverance has already proved that you can convert Mars CO2 to Oxygen, which is encouraging for future human landings. And at a mere seven-month journey time, it is achievable more accessible than traversing the M27 on a bad day.

The technology on Perseverance is frankly awesome. It is designed with three core objectives:

a) Search for past and present bio-signatures

b) Collect and cache samples for a future return mission

c) Help prepare for future human exploration

It all sounds simple, but if you think part of this project is to put rocks (about the size of a loaf of bread) on a planet that one day another rocket will come and pick up and return to Earth, when some people struggle to find a location using sat-nav, this is no small task.

I’ll be honest, the whole presentation was just too good to write up here. There was so much stuff we all learnt about Mars, space exploration, the origins of man, the NOC, the future of humanity, planetary tilts, geological structures, likely theories for how life could have started on, and was eradicated from, Mars and loads of other just mind-blowing stuff, popping it on a LinkedIn article is too hard. Watch the video ( Show your kids. This stuff is just pure awesomeness.

I got a load of feedback from the presentation. My favourite two quotes from that were “Wow, just wow, what a great talk tonight” and “I thought the boat with the auto-captain was great but this is a whole new level”. Pretty pleased with that.

If I were to pick one thing as a takeaway from the session, it is that science is cool, but doesn’t exist without technology. Science and tech co-exist in a way that just helps each other out, and if we want purpose to our technology we need to embrace massively ambitious projects, like this one, to demonstrate just how good tech can be.

The other takeaway (I couldn’t stick to one) is that there are some absolute geniuses in our local area, most of whom we don’t bump into in our day-to-day mundane worlds. Jessica is incredible, calmly walking us through how she is doing some experiments using a robot that is 314.2million kilometres away, and making it so accessible. It is enormously reassuring that our future is in the hands of such brilliant (local) people.

Thanks to Jessica and the team at NASA for pulling together the materials that made this talk so interesting, and to Michael for organising it with Jessica. Not sure how we top this one for June, but I love a challenge.


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