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New funding for martian science

11 May 2012

The UK Space Agency has announced nine funding awards, totalling £2M, for science associated with Mars exploration. This scheme will enhance the UK’s science capabilities; help us to understand the Martian environment and to search for traces of past and present life.

Bids of an excellent standard were received from a range of scientific disciplines, highlighting the diverse, vibrant nature of the UK’s internationally recognised planetary science community.

Supporting this community will allow for more effective exploitation of the European Space Agency’s Aurora and Science programmes within the UK, helping maintain our world-class science base – a key driver for innovation and economic growth. Searching for signs of life beyond our planet is also one of the major questions of our age, and one which UK scientists are well positioned to address.

Dr Dave Parker, Director of Technology Science and Exploration at the UK Space Agency said "this initiative demonstrates the continuing strength and relevance of UK planetary science. The UK should be proud to have such a dynamic research community and we are delighted to support researchers at the forefront of exploring the Red Planet.

Two of the awards will enable UK researchers to benefit from NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission. The new American rover, ‘Curiosity,’ is due to land on the Red Planet in August 2012, and will deliver vital data for scientists assessing the viability of life on the planet. Professor Sanjeev Gupta, from Imperial College London, is a Participating Scientist in this mission and has secured UK Space Agency funding for his work analysing the evolution of the Martian surface.

Dr John Bridges and Professor Simon Kelley, from University of Leicester and the Open University have also been selected by NASA as MSL scientists, and will receive funding for their work studying water-rock interactions. Dr Bridges said of their award, “This will allow us to participate in what is, in my view, the most important and exciting robotic landing mission ever attempted to date. MSL has the potential to reveal whether Mars was ever habitable for microbial life and determine if there were standing bodies of water for long periods of time.

“We were selected as Participating Scientists because of the results from our UK-funded research on Martian meteorites and the interaction of water with the Mars crust. We will work to communicate our results about the effects of water at the MSL site to other scientists, but also to wider communities: the Mars research supported by the UK Space Agency has an enduring fascination for many people.”

Fellowships were awarded to Dr Lewis Dartnell from University of Leicester, Dr Pete Grindrod of University College London and Dr Karen Olsson-Francis of the Open University. Each Fellow will work for three years on key scientific questions focused on the search for life on Mars.

Dr Dartnell said “I’m absolutely delighted with this award. The fellowship will allow me to really focus on research. Raman is particularly exciting as it can spot signs of extreme life in the most hostile environments on Earth – and has lots of other applications, like detecting drugs – but has not yet been deployed on a planetary mission.

“The ExoMars rover will be the first to carry a Raman instrument, and excitingly it will be capable of finding signatures of ancient life in underground samples brought up by the probe’s drill. One big unknown, however, is how these distinctive biosignatures might be changed or erased by cosmic radiation on the martian surface, and this is what I’ll be looking at.”

Charles Cockell from the University of Edinburgh, Mark Sephton from Imperial College London and Mark Price of the University of Kent all received awards to support their work, looking respectively at the habitability of Mars; the application of Mars-bound instruments in Earth-based experiments; and the chemistry of meteor and comet impacts on the Martian surface. Axel Hagermann of the Open University received an award to enable his study of the Martian polar caps, and the potential of these regions to support life.

Details of the successful proposals are as follows:

Principal investigator Institution Project Title Total Awarded
Dr John Bridges, Professor Simon Kelley University of Leicester, Open University Mars Science Laboratory Studies of Water-Rock Interaction on Mars £186,490
Professor Charles Cockell University of Edinburgh Investigating the habitability of Martian fluids £79,649
Dr Lewis Dartnell University of Leicester Raman spectroscopy, cosmic radiation, and the Search for Life on Mars £272,718
Dr Peter Grindrod University College London Surface-atmosphere exchange and the history of water on Mars £316,996
Professor Sanjeev Gupta Imperial College London Sedimentary reconstruction and paleoenvironmental evolution of the MSL landing site at Gale Crater, Mars £351,212
Dr Axel Hagermann Open University Environment, habitability, and the physics of the Martian polar caps £380,692
Dr Karen Olsson-Francis Open University Anaerobic Microorganisms: The Key for Detecting Life On Mars £301,893
Dr Mark Price University of Kent What role does impact driven chemistry play in the lithosphere of Mars? £88,574
Professor Mark Sephton Imperial College London ExoMars and Beyond: A lab-based Mars mission for the Life Marker Chip £52,132
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