Ireland and the Race to Mars

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

The ‘Sun Worshipper’

Ireland’s leading ‘Sun worshipper’ TCD solar physicist, Peter Gallagher

Published in Science Spin, Issue 42, September-October 2010

How do you describe someone who checks his computer first thing every morning to see what the weather is like – not in Malaga, the Canaries or Tenerife – but, the Sun. Strange? Weird? Odd? No, not really. This is just part of the daily work routine for Ireland’s leading academic ‘Sun Worshipper’, TCD astrophysicist, Peter Gallagher.

Today, Peter Gallagher is head of the Solar Physics Group at TCD, working with NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the space industry. He is Ireland’s foremost scientific authority on the Sun, and his group is one of the largest of its kind in Europe. By any measure of success, Peter has been very successful in his career.


So, how did he first get interested in science? Well, like many leading scientists, he didn’t have a single defining moment that made him realise that he wanted to be a scientist. Rather, he remembers always being interested in how things work, from very early in his childhood. Peter’s Dad, was a service engineer with Ingersoll Rand, and father and son often working together, taking apart machines in the back garden.

“I was always fascinated by the way things worked,” recalled Peter. “I used to take things apart an awful lot – TVs and radios things like that – and I would work how they worked. I did that when I was in primary school, 10 or so. I was taking things apart around the house and driving my parents mad.”

The young Peter learned quickly, and though he didn’t excel, in an academic sense, while in primary school, he showed glimpses of what he was capable of. “I remember the teacher asked the class how a four-stroke engine worked. I stood up and told the teacher about the four strokes of the engine, intake, compression, fire and exhaust. .

Peter, from Dublin, went to O’Connell’s School on the northside. While at secondary school he became interested in maths, and though he found it was the hardest subject, he liked it the most, and liked the challenge it presented. Surprisingly, the school didn’t have an option to study physics, so Peter chose to do chemistry and technical drawing  with an eye on doing chemistry or chemical engineering later on in college.

Peter applied for science in UCD, and was accepted choosing Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Biology in 1st year, and thinking that chemistry would be his main subject.

“I was fascinated by atoms and molecules, but realised in college that physics told you more about atoms and that I could use my maths. In chemistry, I found it too abstract. The chemicals in the bottles didn’t help me understand how atoms worked.”

That first year in college, as for many people, was a momentous one for Peter. He met the two loves of his life – Physics, and his talented scientist wife Dr Emma Teeling. The love-life is a story for elsewhere, but in terms of physics, Peter realised as soon as he did physics in first year that he wanted to be a physicist. The exam results, and reading the ‘Brief History of Time’ by Stephen Hawkins, lit his fire even further.

He read Hawkins, but that wasn’t enough. He devoured books relating to Physics. “I launched into astronomy and astrophysics,” he said. “I took books out even during the summer, and worked through them. I loved physics, I couldn’t put them down.” That kind of passion and commitment would lead him to do great things in coming years.


Peter chose to do a post-grad in opto-electronics at Queen’s University in Belfast (QUB) after graduation. This was a hot area at the time, back in 1996, and he learned about fibre optics, lasers, CCD cameras and the like. It was also a stimulating time to be in Belfast, and he was there for the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. He came first in his class, and was offered a PhD at QUB. The clincher was that the PhD would involve travel and interaction with NASA’s Goodard Flight Centre.

The PhD was in Solar Physics, and involved using NASA’s SOHO spacecraft to make measurements of the Sun’s atmosphere. He worked closely with engineers and scientists based at the SOHO control centre. Then, following the completion of his PhD he was offered a job by NASA at Goddard. A career in NASA beckoned.

However, after three years working as a senior scientist with NASA he decided he wanted to come home. Why would he leave what many would consider a dream job and come back to Ireland? “How the hell knows,” he answered (laughing). But, the decision was taken for very clear reasons, and he believes it was best for his career. At NASA, he would have gone up the ladder in a big organisation, and could have ended up managing a spacecraft, for example. But there were few opportunities for research.

“It was a dream job at Goddard, but there was a barrier to me scientifically to be honest. I wanted to set up a research group that answer questions like, how the Sun produces explosions and solar flares? How  do they affect the Earth when they go off?” He returned to Ireland in 2006, and first lectured at UCD. Then came the chance to set up a group at TCD, he took it and now he is doing exactly what he wants to do.

“I am constantly changed and have the opportunity to pursue my own interests. If you are driven by a question, then as an academic scientist you have the luxury to pursue that question. The travel is the fluff. I travel to Hawaii for meetings, but the stuff that keeps you awake at night, the science paper beside the bed because you don’t understand something – that’s the joy of the discovery of new things.”

The advice Peter would give to students considering science is that, aside from the academic life, there are many career options, and many of them are rewarding. A recent astrophysics graduate of his, he said, is now working in a financial trading firm. There is the IT sector, or teaching, or jobs in Ireland growing space industry.

He finishes on an optimistic note, from a person that describes himself as ‘an unrelenting optimist”. “I am very optimistic about the future for Ireland. I think we are going to explore new markets, new science and that ultimately that will bring growth and employment back to Ireland. I am very positive about the next five years.”