Whilst it wouldn’t be without its risks, I think that we are probably technically capable of [putting a human on Mars] now. However, there are too many other financial pressures to deal with at the moment.
Dr Adam Baker
Last week, the University of Leicester Space Research Centre’s Dr John Bridges spoke to ScienceOmega.com
's Katy Edgington in the days leading up to the Curiosity
rover’s historic arrival on the red planet. As one of only two UK scientists selected to participate in the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project, Dr Bridges appeared both anxious and excited in equal measure
At 6:30am BST on Monday morning (possibly a little later due to the time delay), the international space science community breathed a collective sigh of relief. Curiosity
landed safely, as planned, inside Mars’s Gale crater. The general consensus seems to be that NASA and its collaborators have accomplished something great. They have transported a 900kg, nuclear-powered roaming laboratory 154 million miles, and they have succeeded in placing it, undamaged, on the surface of another planet.
Accordingly, the feat has received universal acclaim. US President Barack Obama hailed the mission as, "an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future." Despite all of the excitement, Curiosity’s
arrival on our neighbouring planet marks only the beginning of its expedition. During the course of the next two years, the rover will attempt to discern whether or not Mars could have ever supported life. Moreover, many believe that Curiosity
represents the dawn of a new era of Martian exploration. The European Space Agency (ESA), for example, plans to send its own rover, ExoMars
, to the planet in six years time.
One scientist participating in this renaissance is Kingston University’s Dr Adam Baker. Along with his colleagues and students, Dr Baker is working to develop lighter chassis for Mars rovers. I spoke to the London-based astronautics lecturer to gauge his perspective of the Martian revolution…
Do you think that Curiosity will find evidence that Mars could have supported life at some point in its history?
That’s a good question. I really hope that it does. It could swing either way; we honestly just don’t know. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that it’s likely that there is
evidence there. Whether or not Curiosity
will locate it is not as clear. Mars has a lot of land to explore and Curiosity
, whilst a fantastic piece of engineering, is only one little rover. I would say that it is more unlikely than it is likely, but who knows? I certainly hope
that it finds evidence of life.
What other aspects of Curiosity’s mission are you most excited about?
I think that Curiosity
represents a fantastic technology demonstrator. It will prove a number of technologies that we will almost certainly want to use when we send people to Mars in the future. I have to say that this is the thing that really
excites me the most. The mission has already tested a completely new way of landing in the form of its ‘sky crane’ – a rocket-powered platform. This is the sort of tool that we might want to use to put people onto the surface of Mars.
Many of Curiosity’s
instruments would be useful on a human mission to the red planet. Take, for example, its nuclear power source. Whilst it’s not the first to be sent to Mars, it’s been about 40 years since this was last done. Nuclear power – although a dirty term to many – is probably going to be essential in offering a safe way for people to explore Mars. Solar power is just a bit too unreliable because of all the dust on the planet.
will examine the surface of Mars in much greater detail than we have been able to previously. Sending humans
to other planets is what space exploration is all about, so we need to know as much as we possibly can about the environment before we actually go there.
Do you think that a human will walk on the surface of the red planet before the end of this century, and if so, when do you think that this will happen?
Yes, I think that this is very likely to happen. When? Well that very much depends on when the world
decides that it wants to go to Mars. Whilst it wouldn’t be without its risks, I think that we are probably technically capable of doing this now. However, there are too many other financial pressures to deal with at the moment. If you were to fast-forward 10 years from now, it would be much easier to see a viable roadmap leading to a human landing on Mars. This, I think, would have to be a truly international effort and right now, there is just too much uncertainty to pitch for a date.
I’ve been interested in Mars exploration for about 15 years. During this period, I have heard a wide range of predictions. If you were to really push me on the issue, I would say that humans probably won’t land on Mars before 2050. I am, however, almost certain that we will accomplish this feat before the end of the 21st
century. After all, it’s something that people actually want to do. As one of the last frontiers of exploration, this really is a matter of curiosity. Ultimately, we are going to go to Mars just because it’s there.
One event that might spur us on is if Curiosity
succeeds in finding signs of life. That could provide the push that we need to send the astronautic equivalent of a geologist with a rock hammer and microscope to have a look around in person. Robots – although they are getting better every year – can only do so much. When it comes to picking apart a new discovery, you just can’t beat a trained team of scientists.
Could you tell us a bit more about your own research within this field?
Personally, it’s an area that I’m just getting into. I have only been at Kingston for a year but a colleague of mine, Dr Andy Curley, has organised a number of student projects to examine how we might produce better Mars rovers. ‘Better’, in this sense, tends to mean lighter, more structurally efficient or less expensive. I have a background in materials engineering – my PhD was focused on advanced composites for jet engines. I therefore intend to investigate how we can use the most advanced available materials – things like metal composites – and integrate them into Mars rovers. This could make the vehicles lighter, stiffer and more durable.