Tiny island flat used as base for mission to find life on Mars

Professor John Parnell has turned the living room in his flat in Millport into a base for the mock-up operation.

Tiny island flat used as base for mission to find life on Mars SWNS via SWNS

A flat on the Isle of Cumbrae is being used as a base for a mission to find life on Mars.

The seafront flat in Millport, Isle of Cumbrae, North Ayrshire, is being used as a command hub for a mock-up operation to help prepare for the ExoMars mission being run by the European Space Agency which will launch next year and land in 2023.

Professor John Parnell, 64, a geologist at the University of Aberdeen, turned his living room in the flat into a base using just a laptop.

He logs on to video-link with a quarry in Leicester being used to simulate the surface of Mars, and will analyse rocks and minerals to look for evidence when the mission starts.

Scientists need to practice interpreting data that will be sent back 400 million kilometres by a rover, to be analysed in Millport.

Although he doubts they will find any life on Mars now, he believes it may have existed in the past.

Professor Parnell, who got involved through his job, said: “The mission ExoMars is primarily organised by the European Space Agency and is due to fly to Mars next year and its intention is to look for evidence of life.

“That probably means life on Mars in the distant past – the surface of Mars is not at all conducive to life now.

“I would be very surprised if there was any living right now.

“As to the past, I think it’s probably 50/50.

“Even if it had been there, we’re going to have to try very hard.

“If you landed a spacecraft on many parts of the Earth, you might find it difficult to prove there was life there – the evidence is there but actually finding it is not easy.”

He was teaching students remotely from the flat he bought in 2014 when he realised he could run the base from there.

Professor Parnell said: “The mission involves a number of different scientific instruments, most of which will be on a rover which will trundle slowly over the planet’s surface.

“These include a camera, a drill, several different instruments which can undertake chemical analyses of the rocks there to work out what the rocks are made of in terms of their chemical and mineral elements.

“At the site of the field trip, the people who at the site have multiple screens – ones showing the rocks, a simulation of getting a signal back from Mars.

“They also have a screen that has me on the other end and I am giving them guidance as to what they are looking at.

“There is also a close up camera, allowing them to focus on specific rocks.

“We’re trying to avoid them actually walking up and touching rocks, they’re looking at a screen to simulate them seeing the rocks from another planet and then getting real-time guidance from me.

“Part of this is training young people, whose experience is not as great as mine.”

Last month scientists trialled a Raman spectrometer – which helps identify minerals – in preparation for the mission but more people need to be trained to use it.

He added: “We need to make sure that is thoroughly calibrated and tested on the kinds of minerals we’re expecting to look for.

“If you imagine how this will work on Mars, they are in a mission control room somewhere in Europe and they need to make decisions about how to deploy the instrument and interpret the data in a completely remote manner.”

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