Irish scientists find arthritis ‘off’ switch; Chinese space station falling to Earth; New organ found; Holding on to memories in Alzheimer’s using implants

Chinese Space Station

The 9.4 tonne Chinese space station Tiangong-1 is set to fall to Earth over the easter weekend, but scientists are not sure exactly where (Photo: NBC News)

Listen to weekly round up of science news broadcast on East Coast FM: 29th March 2018

My weekly science news round up on East Coast FM: weight loss; mindfulness; ancient Egypt; super volcano; Chinese space station

The latest science news from around the world 

Broadcast on The Morning Show on East Coast FM (20/10/2017)

A group of scientists say there is no evidence for many of the benefits claimed for mindfulness (Source: http://www.positivepsychologyprogram.com)

 

Every two lbs overweight knocks nine weeks off your life

Source: Telegraph, UK

  • Study of 600,000 people study link between longevity and lifestyle
  • Smoke pack of cigs per day, die seven years earlier on average
  • Edinburgh University researchers did this as a so-called big data project, which means analysing and cross referencing vast amounts of data.
  • If you are two stone overweight, then it will take, on average, six months off your life.
  • Data came from Europe, North America and Australia, via the UK Biobank.
  • But… also found that life is extended by one year for every year a person stays in education after school, on average. That’s a massive effect.
  • Life expectancy continuing to increase, and in the UK it stands now at 79.5 years for a man, on average, and 83.1 for a woman.
  • But, Public Health England found this year that the average ‘healthy’ average life expectancy – the number of years a person can live largely free of illness – is less than the age people get the state pension

Little proof mindfulness meditation works, say scientists

Source: Scientific American

  • Scientists in the US now asking where is the proof that mindfulness works? Question asked by a group of 15 prominent psychologists and cognitive scientists in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.
  • Lots of studies have been done on mindfulness and it has been reported to relieve stress, pain and even slow ageing.
  • But, these researchers are critical of these studies because they say they are poorly designed, they have inconsistent definitions are what mindfulness actually is, and often do not use a control group to rule out the placebo effect.
  • Only some 9 per cent of studies on mindfulness has been tested in clinical trials, one report said, and meta analysis of mindfulness research not impressive.
  • In 2014, a review of 47 meditation trials, involving over 3,500 people found that no evidence mindfulness enhanced enhanced attention, curtailed substance abuse, helped sleep or controlled weight.
  • Mindfulness meditation and training is now a huge industry, so there are vested interests promoting its effectiveness, the scientists state.
  • Less than 25 per cent of trials on mindfulness monitor potential negative effects and that is causing worry among scientists too.
  • The 2014 review did find some benefits, modest benefits, for anxiety, depression and pain from the use of mindfulness.
  • A reputable trial this year found that mindfulness attention training reduced self perceived stress, but not the stress hormone cortisol. What does it mean?
  • Another trial found that mindfulness increased the thickness of the prefrontal cortex around of the brain, which is associated with complex behaviour, decision making and shaping the personality.

Ancient Egypt brought down by volcanoes and climate change

Source: Independent UK

  • Volcanic eruptions caused riots and rebellions against Ptolemaic rule and Cleopatra was one of those leaders.
  • Ancient Egypt relied on monsoon weather to provide water irrigate the nile delta region, as does 70 per cent of the globe still today
  • Researchers at TCD and Yale looked at the historical records and used climate modelling methods (working backwards) to do this study.
  • Summer floods helped crops to grow, fed population and were the fundamental basis for the wealth of ancient Egypt at this time 350BC to 30 BC or so.

Yellowstone Super Volcano could erupt inside decades causing global volcanic winter

Source: Independent UK

  • The last time it erupted was 630,000 years ago and created the Yellowstone caldera, which is 40 miles wide.
  • The volcano is so big that if it erupted, it could choke the Earth’s entire atmosphere with ash, blocking out a lot of sunlight, causing temperatures to dip, and this would continue for years.
  • That last massive eruption, scientists at Arizona State have found, occurred following two influxes of fresh magma into the magma chamber.
  • The temperatures increased around the volcano as this happened over decades, not centuries, as previously thought.
  • This shows that the the yellowstone volcano could become dangerous inside decades, at any point, when temperatures start to rise.
  • Large parts of the USA would be covered in dangerous ash if it erupted, the Earth would dramatically cool, sunlight would struggle to get through and the impact would last more than a decade. Life would get very tough, esp in US.

Chinese space station will crash to Earth in months

Source: Guardian UK

  • The 8.5 tonne orbiting laboratory (two large male bull elephants) is now out of control, and in a death spiral, and the ISS will follow perhaps as earth as 2020.
  • The Tiangong-1, or heavenly palace, lab was launched in 2011 as part of China’s push to become a space superpower.
  • Visited by taikonauts including China’s first female taikonaut Liu Yang in 2012.
  • Much of the craft will burn up in the atmosphere, but scientists in the west estimate that pieces as large as 100kg (16 stone man) will crash to Earth anytime between now and April 2018.
  • Impossible to predict when and where the pieces will fall scientists say.
  • No-one has been hurt by space debris falling to Earth, but in 1979 NASA’s 77-tonne Skylab space station crashed to the ground with some large pieces landing outside Perth.

 

Tallaght students set to make radio contact with the International Space Station

Fifth year students from Tallaght Community School pictured preparing for radio contact with with the International Space Station. (Pic: Colin O’Riordan) 

Tallaght Community School will this Thursday, 19th October become the first Irish school to make radio contact with the International Space Station (I.S.S.)

The I.S.S. travels in orbit around the Earth at a speed of 27,600km/hour and for a window of six to 12 minutes it will pass over Tallaght Community School.

The students will get the opportunity to speak to Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli while he takes a break from his extensive daily duties on board the ISS.

“The opportunity to talk to the astronauts on board the ISS will hopefully encourage students to pursue a career in STEM education, but also be a memorable moment in their journey through education in Tallaght Community School,” said Ian Boran, physics and maths teacher.

In 2014 Paolo was interviewed for an RTE Radio 1 science series called ‘What’s It All About? where he spoke about life on a previous ISS mission.

Paolo Nespoli, the Italian European Space Agency astronaut will speak to Tallaght students via a radio link (Source: European Space Agency)

Radio equipment on the ground in Tallaght will beam a line-of-sight signal to the ISS. The students in Tallaght have set up a radio station on the ground, using amateur radio equipment which includes an antenna, and a two-way radio system.

The ISS has been a channel for educating school students around the world about on the work that takes place on the ISS and life on-board the ISS.

Amateur radio is a hobby which facilitates learning about how radio technology works , communicating with others and long distance communication.

Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, or ARISS, is a global voluntary group that formalised a programme for helping schools to connect with the ISS through the use of amateur radio equipment.

The ARISS runs a competition where thousands of applications are received from schools worldwide to connect with the ISS, but only a few are chosen.

Schools in the home country of a specific astronaut on board the ISS received 70 per cent of the limited number of contact events per year.

So, for countries like Ireland, which have no astronaut on board the ISS, it is extremely difficult for a school to be chosen.

 

Women make better surgeons; Trump plans Moon return; Women brain’s wired to be selfless; voice key to emotional state

Patients are 12 less likely to die 30 days post-op if the operation was performed by a female surgeon (Source: gender.stanford.edu)

Broadcast on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan on East Coast FM 12/10/17

 

Student competition to build a mini-satellite launched

A competition has been launched for secondary students to build a mini-satellite.

A competition to design, build and test a mini-satellite, which is open to second level students, was launched this week to coincide with Space Week.

CanSat 2018 is a simulation of a real satellite, but built inside an empty soft drink can.

In 2016 Ireland finished 3rd in the European finals and in 2017 Ireland finished 2nd in the European finals, so this year Ireland is hoping for an overall win in Europe.

CanSat Ireland is open to post primary students, Transition Year and upwards. The competition is designed to give students experience of a real space project and aims to encourage them to consider careers in science and engineering.

CanSat Ireland started in 2012 and is co-ordinated by the European Space Education Resource Office (ESERO) Ireland.

The winner of the national final then has the opportunity to represent Ireland by participating in the European CanSat Competition which challenges teams from other European countries to compete against each other.

Schools interested in participating in CanSat should contact Alan Giltinan at Blackrock Castle Observatory by email at alan.giltinan@bco.ie and by phone at 021 4326125

 

Ireland ‘switches on’ to astronomy in historic event at Birr Castle

Broadcast on RTE Radio 1 Drivetime, 27th July 2017

I-LOFAR, Ireland’s radio telescope at Birr Castle, pictured, was switched on today in a historic moment for astronomy here (Credit: RTE)

The most important telescope ever built in Ireland, one capable of revealing  the most closely guarded secrets of the Universe, was switched on by Minister John Halligan today (27th July 2017) in Birr Castle Co Offaly.

The scientists behind Ireland’s LOFAR radio telescope say that it can listen in to signals coming from even the most distant parts of space, and could conceivable, one day, detect a signal from an extraterrestrial civilisation.

 

Extraterrestrial radio 

Up to today, if ET was going to send a signal to the Earth via radio – which many believe would be his preferred option for technical reasons – Ireland certainly would not be the first place to pick up the historic transmission.

After today, it is entirely possible that Birr Castle, which is now proudly home to Ireland’s LOFAR radio telescope, could be the location where the world’s press gather to hear of the first radio contact from another civilisation.

The person that has, more than any other, put Irish astronomy back on the map, in a way that it hasn’t been since the 19th century, is Peter Gallagher, professor in astrophysics at Trinity College Dublin.

Peter led the countdown to the switching on of I-LOFAR this morning, and even heavy rain didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of a crowd of scientists, locals, journalists, as well as Minister Halligan and his officials.

History 

It is entirely fitting that Birr Castle is home to I- LOFAR as it is also home to the Leviathan of Parsonson, an enormous hulking optical, or light-based telescope, that sits in a field adjacent to the new arrival. The Leviathan, was the world’s largest and most famous telescope between the years 1845 and 1917.

It was built, designed and operated by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, a brilliant scientist, who used his remarkable telescope, and eyesight, to make out the distinctive spiral shape of what became known as a whirlpool galaxy, because of its distinctive shape, called M51. That was in 1845.

This discovery was huge, because it meant that there was more than one galaxy outside our own, the Milky Way and meant the Universe was a lot larger than we had thought up to then. The telescope and Lord Rosse attracted visitors from around the world who came to look in awe on the remarkable man and his machine.

The switching on of I-LOFAR today as a proud and emotional day for the current Lord Rosse, Brendan Parsons, the 7th Earl.

 

 

 

Exciting 
Today was a historic and exciting day for Irish astronomy, and puts it back on the international map in a way it hasn’t been since the 19th century. Scientists here, using I-LOFAR, will, as of today, be able to hunt for new planets, try and unravel some of the Universe’s most deeply held secrets, and even, one day, perhaps, receive a signal from whatever intelligent life form may wish to send a radio signal our way.

Let the astronomical games begin!

The History of the Search for ET life – so far

The Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek California is set up to search for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence (Image source: Sky & Telescope)

 

For millions of years – as long as humans have existed and gazed upwards –  people will have questioned are we alone in the Universe? Yet, it is only in the past 60 years or so, with rapid technological advances, that it has become possible to make serious attempts to answer that age-old question.

Listen to interview with Myles Dungan on The History Show, RTE Radio 1 (broadcast 2/04/17)

Ancient

The ancient Greeks, the foundation stone upon which much of our western way of life today has been built, were the first, in the west at least, to consider the possibility that the Universe was infinite and that it contained an infinite number of civilisations.

The arrival in the 16th century of the Copernican model of our Solar System, where the Earth revolved around the Sun, impacted on our thoughts of ET life too.

This radical science, which place the Sun at the centre of the Solar System, not the Earth, implied that our planet was not perhaps as important as we had thought.

If Earth was just one planet of several orbiting the Sun, and not at the centre of everything, then why could there not be life, like us, on other similar planets?

This, of course, caused complications for some established religions, as if there was life, like us, on other planets, then had Jesus come down to save them too?

There things stood, with lots of questions, but no ability to answer them, for several centuries until the second half of the twentieth century.

Principles

In the 1950s, at the height of Cold War paranoia, the number of reported sightings of UFOs increased dramatically across the United States.

In 1959, two young scientists at Cornell University decided to try and take a serious scientific look at how mankind might try to tune in to alien communications.

The paper appeared in Nature, one of the world’s top scientific journals, and it was called ‘Searching for Interstellar Communications’.

This paper changed everything because it established the scientific principles by which scientists might try to find, and listen in to alien communications, if they existed.

The authors, Guiseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison were both physicists based at Cornell University in upstate New York. They said that the possibility of extra-terrestrial ‘intelligent’ life couldn’t be determined, or ruled in or out. However, given that mankind evolved it was likely that other intelligent creatures evolved too, on planets near a Sun. Some of these civilisations might, the authors said, be more advanced than our own and may want to contact us and other intelligent beings that resided on planets – like them – close to a warm Star.

The two physicists considered how intelligent extra-terrestrials might make contact with us, and decided that electromagnetic waves, which travel at the speed of light and are not easily knocked off course, would be the most logical way to transmit a message.

Furthermore, they decided that the most likely frequency the aliens would broadcast on would be 1,420 megahertz as that is the ‘emission frequency’ of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the Universe. This is the frequency of the radio wave emissions given off when an atom in an element, in this case hydrogen, is given off as the element moves from a high energy atomic configuration into a lower energy configuration.

The aliens, the logic went, would chose this frequency because they knew other intelligent beings would also understand its importance and tune in accordingly.

SETI

The paper inspired a now-famous astronomer called Frank Drake to perform the first scientific experiment to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. That was 1960.

Drake, is still alive, aged 86, and an active astronomer, and considered the Father of SETI the Search for Extra-terrestrial life, and the SETI Institute in the USA.

Drake pointed a radio telescope at two ‘nearby’ stars called Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani to see whether there was anything being broadcast from planets orbiting these Sun-like bodies in the hydrogen emission frequency from that location. There wasn’t.

Today, the SETI Institute, based in Northern California, has access to a $30 million array of telescopes, funded by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft. It has a permanent staff of scientists, and is supported by donations and computer power by SETI enthusiasts all over the world. It is not reliant on US taxpayers’ support.

Drake, apart from founding SETI, is also famous for producing something called the Drake equation along with Carl Sagan, to predict how many civilisations there might be in the Universe, based on known parameters.

In 1961, when the Drake equations was first produced, it predicted there was from 1,000 to one billion such civilisations, and the range was down to the fact that the parameters were nebulous.

The Drake equation has become more accurate over the years, based on better knowledge of parameters such as how often Sun-like Stars form, and how many of these stars have planets. But we still don’t know how precisely life begins, even on Earth, or what fraction of life will evolve to become intelligent.

Criticism

The implications of the Cocconi and Morrison article took time to be absorbed by the mainstream scientific community, but eventually, in 1971, NASA got on board by setting up Project Cyclops at NASA. This was the first formalised, publicly-funded research project into searching for ET life.

The funding wasn’t enough for scientists at Cyclops to do a great deal, but even at its low level of funding, it soon came under political attack.

In 1978, Senator William Proxmire bestowed one of his infamous ‘golden fleece’ awards on the SETI programme, deriding it as a waste of taxpayers’ money.

In 1981, a Proxmire amendment killed off SETI funding for the following year with Proxmire saying that it was a silly search for aliens unlikely to produce results.

In 1993, NASA got back into SETI work, this time with the High Resolution Microwave Survey Targeted Search programme. But, again, this project too came under political attack and lost is operational funding just one year after it began.

It wasn’t just politicians who were critical of SETI work, scientists were critical too, who supported the view outlined by the late nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi.

Fermi, who had died in 1954, did not accept the view (held by many at SETI) that the Universe was teeming with life, based on its size, and number of planets near Stars.

Fermi said that if the SETI people were to be believed, and the Universe was teeming The Earth was 4.5 billion years old, Fermi had said, and there was no evidence of extra-terrestrial life visiting here in all that time.

He had asked the question if there is so much life out there, ‘where is everybody’. It was a simple, yet, devastating riposte to the Drake equation.

Fermi had come up with his idea in 1950, but many scientists still point to it.

Evidence

Yet, Fermi was not alive when two things happened, both in the mid-1970s, which are the best pieces of evidence for the existence of extra-terrestrial life.

The first story concerns an experiment that took place when the Viking landers landed on Mars in 1976. Some readers will remember the amazing colour pictures of the surface of Mars shown on TV at the time.

Viking 1 and Viking 2 were NASA space probes sent to Mars for the sole purpose of determining whether life existed on the planet.

One of three experiments on board worked was set up to see if the soil contained microbes. If it did, the life forms in the Martian soil would ingest and metabolise the nutrients and release either radioactive carbon dioxide or methane gas which could be measured by a radiation detector on the space probe.

The minute the nutrients were mixed with the soil sample there was a huge reaction with something like 10,000 counts of radioactive molecules being produced. This was a huge spike because the radiation background on Mars was 50 or 60 counts.

The experiment was, thus, positive for life, but NASA did not announce it had found life because the other two experiments on board which were negative for life.

The other piece of ‘evidence’ that is put forward concerns what is called the ‘Wow signal’, which was received by the Big Ear Telescope on 15th August 1977. The telescope was scanning for signals coming in from potential ET intelligent beings.

This was a strong narrowband signal which appeared to come from the constellation Sagittarius, and was in the 1,420 MHz frequency band. It was precisely the sort of signal that the SETI researchers were looking for as being of ET origin.

Jerry Ehman, a volunteer astronomer working with SETI spotted this massive, powerful, narrow band Wo signal on the paper readouts he was going through while sitting at his kitchen table a few days later.

Ehman was stunned by the signal and was so taken back by it that he wrote the comment ‘Wow’ in the paper margins, hence the name Wow signal.

The signal lasted 72 seconds, then the Earth rotated, the signal dropped out of view of the telescope, and when the same region of sky came into view again, it was gone.

The signal helped inspire the film Contact (1997) starring Jodie Foster.

Jerry Ehman went through every conceivable possible earthbound source for the signal, such as nearby military and civilian communications, but nothing could explain it. It remains the strongest candidate ever detected for an alien radio transmission.

Recent

The biggest thing to happen in recent years was the announcement in 2015 of $100 million privately funded search for ET life over 10 years, or about 10 million per year. This is big even compared to the annual funding for SETI of about 2 million dollars per annum. The Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Message initiatives are supported by the Russian internet investor and physicist Yuri Milner and supporter by big names like Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees and Frank Drake.

This will survey the one million stars in the Milky Way closest to Earth, as well as the 100 closest galaxies for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth, in the form of artificial radio or optical transmissions that cannot be explained by natural phenomenon.

The advance of technology and our ability to scan more areas of our vast galaxy and Universe mean that people like Seth Shostak, an astronomer at SETI believes that we will have discovered ET life, intelligent or not, inside the next 20 years.

Get ready to meet ET!

Ireland and the Race to Mars

First broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke (23-11-2016)

mars

The Martian landscape as depicted in The Martian, a film by 20th Century Fox (Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Both NASA and China have announced plans to land rovers on Mars in 2020, while a number of ambitious non governmental organisations also joining the dash to the Red Planet. It is anticipated that a manned mission from Earth to Mars and back will take five years, and Irish researchers and companies are part of global efforts to make sure that a manned Mars mission is a success.

The ‘Race to Mars’ has well and truly started, and, it’s about time some might argue, as it is now 47 years since Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, and those of us around back then might have expected to see more progress by now.

Unlike the 1960s, when the technology was really being stretched to the limit to get to the Moon, there are far less technical obstacles in the way of us reaching Mars, and the reason we haven’t done so is due to US politics and money.

That said the scientific challenges of getting humans to Mars, establishing a permanent presence there, and returning them safely to Earth are enormous. In October, President Obama set a goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s, and commented that he expects to be still around to see it happen.

But, what drove NASA on in the 1960s, of course, was fear of the Soviet Union and the militarisation of space. There is no Soviet Union threatening US existence anymore, but China is showing signs of emerging as viable new rival. The emergence of China as a space rival can only help efforts to get to Mars.

Challenges

Mars is 34 million miles away, and that is more than 140 times further than the Moon. The entire duration of the mission to the Moon in 1969 was just over 8 days, but getting to Mars safely, spending time there and returning safely to Earth will take in the region of 5 years.

On the journey to Mars, the craft must be designed so that it protects the astronauts from cosmic radiation, while providing them with healthy food to eat, and a means to exercise and stay physically and mentally healthy, and prevent the muscle and bone tissue wastage that will impact astronauts living in microgravity.

NASA are planning to have a habitat module where astronauts will eat a healthy diet from crops grown on ‘green walls’ inside the craft. The air and water will be constantly recycled, and the people chosen will be individuals with a high level of psychological resilience who can endure boredom and are not prone to conflict.

The NASA timeline is that Mars astronauts will spend one year preparing for the launch, one year travelling to Mars, 18 months orbiting and then landing on Mars, and 18 further months on the surface of Mars. They will come home when the Earth and Mars are again favourably aligned to make the return trip home.

This will be a space mission like none in human history requiring a lot of material, some experimental, some to sustain life, some of which would be sent ahead of the crew, such a descent vehicle which would await the astronauts while in Mars orbit, and a shelter on the surface of Mars, assembled by robots.

Cost

There are some who doubt that NASA will be able to get humans to Mars by the 2030s, or even 2040s because of some financial realities. It is estimated that the Apollo moon landings cost $140 billion in today’s dollars, while the realistic price tag to get humans on Mars is somewhere around $450 billion.

NASA’s annual budget for human spaceflight is currently around $9 billion, which is a long, long way short. There needs to be another JFK figure to set out the vision, and secure the budget, but the US has little competition, and there is no ‘clear and present danger’ such as the old Soviet Union to give it a push. That said, ‘Red’ China is creeping up again as a threat to the US psyche.

Will it happen? It is probably unlikely that the US taxpayer will be prepared to pay the entire $450 billion bill to do something for the vague good of mankind.

Commercial 

The answer might come from NASA taking on Mars as a kind of joint venture with commercial companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX. This can help secure private investment and access to potential useful new technologies. For example,

SpaceX are working on cheaper rockets, costing about $1 million to launch.

Some other companies involved are Inspiration Mars, which is a non profit company founded by Dennis Tito the first space tourist. He is planning a trip for a select crew of Americans, who will travel to Mars, orbit, but not land. The plan here is to leave Earth in 2018, or failing that to try again in 2021. The estimated cost of this flyby mission is between $1 and $2 billion.

Then there is the Mars One mission, the one way trip, proposed by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp. This is regarded by some as a ‘suicide mission’ as once people are there, there is no way home. Despite that, there were 2,782 applications to be astronauts on the trip, some of which came from Ireland, including Trinity College astrophysicist, Dr Joseph Roche. The plan is that these applicants will be whittled down six groups of four astronauts, and the first crew of four will leave Earth in 2024. Mars One plan to document the trip on a reality TV show, which they hope will provide much of the finance for the trip.

But, Space X is a serious, space exploration company founded by Elon Musk, a billionaire, playboy who has also made a success out of Tesla electric cars. He is working on developing a fleet of reusable rockets, launch vehicles and space capsules to transport humans to Mars and back again. He wants to build a self sustaining Martian city of 80,000 people, which could be a bolt hole for humanity in the event of some natural or manmade catastrophe here. The plan is to have a human step on Mars by 2026 (10 years!) and for it to be a round trip.

Musk may charge people as little as $0.5 million for a round trip to Mars.

Ireland 

There are a surprising number of researchers and companies based in Ireland doing work that can help make the mission to Mars a success.

For example, the work of Brian Caulfield, Professor of Physiotherapy at UCD, has led to the design and development of a device that can enable astronauts exercise properly so that their physical and mental health can be maintained on the long voyage to Mars. The work has been funded by the European Space Agency (ESA).

The device stimulates the large muscles of the legs to produce aerobic exercise training and muscle strengthening effects in space. This ‘Neuromuscular Electrical Muscle Stimulation Technology’ has been successfully tested by the ESA and was developed as a collaboration between UCD and researchers at the Galway based Biomedical Research Limited.

Research by Trinity College’s Mary Bourke, and Ulster University’s Derek Jackson has investigated Martian wind patterns and how they shape the giant sand dunes that can be seen on the surface of Mars – like a red Saudi Arabia.

Scientists know that Martian weather can be volatile and potentially very dangerous for a Martian landing as well as for human colonists, with huge sandstorms from time to time, for example.

The research is of potential value to NASA and others planning to go to Mars as it shows how the enormous sand dunes on mars influence the local wind speeds on the planet, and how these wind speeds, then in turn shape the sand dunes.

It is like developing a Martian wind and weather forecasting ability on Earth.

In Athlone Institute of Technology Dr Diana Cooper is working on the effects of microgravity on human physiology. The insights gained from this work could be crucial to developing methods to ensure that humans can survive long periods in space, travelling between Earth and Mars, without their bone tissue being reabsorbed back into the blood, or losing significant muscle mass.

Mathematics 

Something less obvious and immediate, but of enormous importance to the success of any space mission to Mars concerns something invented by an Irish mathematical genius in 1843. These are quaternions, which are mathematical equations, which are used to represent the relative movement of 3D objects in space, and the man that invented then was called William Rowan Hamilton.

A few years back, after the NASA curiosity rover landed on Mars, I spoke to one of the mission controllers, a man called Miguel San Martin. He told me that the incredibly precise landing of the car sized curiosity, near an area which NASA believed may show former evidence for life on Mars, was only possible because the precise navigation of curiosity was underpinned by quaternions.

So, incredibly, something invented by a Dubliner, while walking along the banks of the Royal Canal in 1843 with his wife, will be vital to ensure that any future Mars mission lands close to a pre-planned safe, and viable landing site.

Industry

There are a number of companies in Ireland who are doing work which feeds to the development of the technology required to get to Mars.

For example, A specific type of engine, called a Mars Apogee Engine is under development at Moog, Dublin, in work supported by Enterprise Ireland.

This engine is a liquid propellant engine capable of providing more thrust, with less fuel, than is possible with existing propulsion systems. The idea is that these new engines will be efficient enough to save 150kg of propellant on a Mars mission, which will make space available for other things, such as scientific instruments, which will give any Mars mission more ‘bang for its buck’.

The Curtiss-Wright Aviation and Electronic company, which has its origins all the way back to the Wright brothers, has a branch in Dublin. The people here are working on launch vehicles that can take payloads into orbit and build the Martian ‘in orbit’ infrastructure that will be required to supply and sustain human missions to Mars. This will build a supply chain if you like.

Curtiss-Wright are also developing technologies to enable the safe re-entry of spacecraft through planetary atmospheres including Mars, as well as technology that will be central to sustaining life & generating fuel for human explorers on the surface of Mars

Danny Gleeson, Chairman of the Irish Space Industry Group, said that development of human missions to Mars will take decades and that it was unlikely that the human mission  to Mars will be a single shot but rather a choreographed series of missions that build the necessary infrastructure in Earth orbit and Mars orbit & surface to sustain human missions.

“The good news is that there is a plan to get to Mars and back again and the technologies required are almost all available now,” said Danny.

Can the next JFK please step up.