Archive for the ‘Space’ Category

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.

Meteorite Craters Cradled Early Life

First published in The Sunday Times (Irish ed.) 08.05.2016

Meteorite Craters

Marriage protects against cancer; genetic ‘super heroes’; 55 years in space; harnessing energy from raindrops

The interview above was broadcast on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan on 14.04.16.

Yuri Gagarin

Yuri Gagarin was the first human launched into space on the 12th April 1961 (Credit:

It’s been 55 years since Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. How far have we gone since then?

Marriage has been found to increase cancer survival rates in a wide-ranging US study.

Scientists are trying to understand why a small group of ‘genetic superheroes’ with the genes for Cystic Fibrosis show no symptoms for the disease.

Chinese scientists have found a way to improve solar panels by harnessing energy from raindrops when the Sun refuses to shine.



Japanese satellite, with Irish input, is tumbling in space

My story on the tumble taken by Japanese satellite, Hitomi, which has had significant scientific input from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, from The Sunday Times last weekend.

Satellite Story

Girls Texting Problem; Memory Implants Possible; Tests for Mars Mission Begin; Human Species Going Slowly Blind

Click above to listen to discussion The Morning Show with Declan Meehan, 3/03/’16

Teenage Girls Texting

Teenage girls are more likely to become compulsive texters than boys

Good memories could be implanted by ‘synapse surgeons’ in the future, and bad memories erased, according to a leading memory scientist.

Girls are more likely to become compulsive texters than boys, and to suffer academically as a result.

Captain Scott Kelly, US astronaut returned to Earth this week after 340 days on the International Space Station.

Scientists will compare his blood, saliva and other bodily tissues with his identical twin, Mark, also an astronaut, who remained on the ground.

The idea is to determine the impact of long duration space missions, in advance of the NASA-led manned mission to Mars in the 2030s.

Half the world’s population will be short-sighted by 2050, with one fifth, or an estimated 1 billion people, having a severe short-sightedness, scientists predict.


Dogs more loving pets than cats; The mysterious Tabby Star; Early risers have genetic differences; Why do Zebra’s have stripes

Click above to hear discussion on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan

(broadcast on 4/02/2016 on East Coast FM)


Could an artificial structure, built by aliens, called a Dyson Sphere (conceptualised here) be responsible for the huge dimming of a mysterious star, called the Tabby Star, about 1,500 light years away from Earth? (Credit: Market Business News)

Dogs love their owners more than cats, according to a new study, which found far higher levels of the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin in dogs when they were interacting with their owners – versus cats.

Scientists are struggling to understand why a mysterious Star – nicknamed the Tabby Star -has been steadily dimming for the past century, and flickering at irregular intervals.

The oft heard statement “I’m not a morning person” may be supported by science, as geneticists have found  genetic differences between people that refer to themselves as ‘early risers’ and ‘night owls’.

Zebras we all know, have stripes. The question is why, and it’s one that has baffled scientists at least as far back as Charles Darwin, who pondered what evolutionary advantage stripes gave to Zebras.


What would life be really like in space?

Click below to listen to discussion on ‘Living in Space’ on Today with Sean O’Rourke (broadcast on 1st February 2016)


Mars colonies will use the resources of the planet to grow plants, produce drinking water and generate energy (Credit: Bryan Versteeg)

Have you ever imagined what it would be like to live in space for an extended period of time, or whether humans will one day be living in thriving communities dotted across Mars, and some other planets?

President Obama – now 54 – plans to be still around when NASA lands astronauts on Mars sometime during the 2030s. And for children born today, there is a real chance they could travel to Mars in their lifetimes.

But, what is it like to live in space for an extended period of time? And what role is Ireland playing in mankind’s quest to explore other planets?


We have been in space now, of course, for almost 50 years, which will come as a shock to people who still vividly recall Neil Armstrong landing on The Moon in 1969.

The famous Apollo missions took place between 1969 and 1972, and since Apollo finished, more than 44 years ago now, humans have – remarkable – not left lower Earth orbit.

This means we have ventured no further than about 400km above the ground, which is the altitude of the International Space Station, as well as many of our communication satellites.

Yet, although technically this is not space, as space starts somewhere out around 800km above the Earth, the I.S.S. living environment tells us most of what we need to know about living in space for a long time.

Much of what we know about life in space comes from the information passed on to us by scientists and astronauts that have spent time there.

Space Station life 

The I.S.S. was launched in 1998, and astronauts and scientists, such as Chris Hadfield and Tim Peake have enlightened us. Others have too.

In 2014, as part of the RTE Radio 1 science series What’s it all about? I got the opportunity to talk to an Italian astronaut called Paolo Nespoli, who spent six months onboard the I.S.S. about his life there.

Paolo, a married man with kids, employed by the Italian army, was onboard the I.S.S. for six months in 2006. He said it was a struggle at first for his body to adjust to the microgravity onboard the I.S.S.

Micro-gravity is defined as very small amounts of gravity; a negligible amount compared to what our bodies are used to here on Earth.

He suffered from nausea, and all the while he had to share a space of about 100 square metres – a modest apartment – with five colleagues.

He noticed that while they were all working on different surfaces in a relatively small space, the people rarely touched off each other.

They fly around like superman and the utilisation of all the 3D space meant that people could work on different surfaces and still have space.

There was a definite sense of constantly falling, he said, and that’s not a surprise because the I.S.S. IS constantly falling to Earth.

It doesn’t hit the Earth because the Earth is round, and it has booster rockets which keep it in a stable orbit 400 km above the Earth.

For the I.S.S. to stay in that relative position it needs to have an orbital speed of 28,000km per hour – or about 8km per second.

At that kind of speed, the I.S.S. does a full orbit of the Earth in about 1.5 hours or the same time as it takes to drive from Dublin to Belfast.

Paolo said that when he was living on the I.S.S. he had to get used to a sunrise or sunset every 40 or 50 minutes with 16 sunrises every day – defined as a 24 hour period.

There is a viewing area, and from there he said he could make out Italy and other parts of the world coming into view below.

Staying in touch 

NASA, and the other space agencies, make a big effort to ensure that people living on the I.S.S. do not feel isolated so there are telephones and people can call who they want.

Paolo called his family every night, and once a week he had a video conference with his family from the I.S.S. There is internet, and Paolo, like fellow I.S.S. astronauts Chris Hadfield, and the UK’s Tim Peake used social media to connect with a huge audience.

There are strange little things to get used, said Paolo,  like the fact that there is no more ‘up and down’ and fluids don’t automatically go into your stomach. That means it can feel like choking when you take a drink of something.

Paolo said that despite the painfully slow internet connection he could check his bank account, transfer money and pay his taxes from space!

During this time on the I.S.S. his mother died, and he couldn’t attend her funeral, but his colleagues on board gave him a one-minute silence.

Ireland’s involvement in space

Ireland is involved in a surprising amount of space projects, and the past decade or so saw the growth of a vibrant space industry here.

There are in the region of 50 Irish companies working directly with the European Space Agency with contracts to the value of 31 million euro.

Taking some examples:

For example, NASA and others are worried about the deterioration of bone and muscle tissue in people living in space for an extended time.

The trip to Mars may take up to three years to complete, and during this time people will experience muscle wasting from living in low gravity.

Dr Brian Caulfield and his team at UCD have designed a muscle stimulating device, which can help astronauts exercise while asleep.

This work has been funded and supported by the European Space Agency and could be relevant to all future manned space missions.

This 32 metre satellite dish based in Midleton Co Cork, will be used to track and monitor dangerous 'space junk' [Source: National Space Centre]

This 32 metre satellite dish based in Midleton Co Cork, is used to track and monitor dangerous ‘space junk’ [Source: National Space Centre]

One big danger to astronauts in space, is the growing problem of ‘space junk’ but an Irish company, the National Space Centre in Midleton Co Cork is using a 32 metre satellite dish to track and monitor space debris.

The dish was originally built in 1984 to transfer telephone calls between Ireland and the USA, but now it’s being used to track space junk.

Meanwhile, an Irish firm called Cortona 3D is helping train astronauts.

Cortona has been contracted by the ESA to develop training videos for astronauts so they are less likely to make mistakes in space.

Up to recently astronauts were faced with long lists of ‘to do’ tasks and reading manuals, but these videos take them visually through the jobs.

The Irish made videos will be helping astronauts to dock the Automatic Transfer Vehicle that carries food and other supplies to the I.S.S.

In January, meanwhile, the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, announced it was to be a partner in Japan’s ASTRO-H space mission.

This is a mission that wishes to find out more about about things like black holes, and the dynamics of hot gas in galaxy clusters.

The mission is set for launch by the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA on the 12th February equipped with powerful equipment to observe x rays.

Observations in X-rays are a key part of modern astronomy and can only be made from space as X-rays are absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere.

Could humans live on Mars

The answer to that is a resounding yes, although there are many technical problems to be overcome to setting up a Mars colony.

Mars is incredible hostile for humans. It is very cold and as there is little atmosphere, there is no protection from harmful space radiation.

The average temperature on Mars is -60C and temperatures range from -126C in winter near the poles to 20C during summer near the equator.

Temperatures can fluctuate widely, and quickly and this can result in powerful dust storms which could clog up electronics and equipment.

Like an army invading a foreign country, supply lines will be crucial, as shipping materials from Earth will not be viable for the most part.

Gravity is just 40 per cent as strong as Earth, and there is little known about the long term effects of this on our bodies.

To survive the cold and lack of air pressure humans will need to live in pressurised and heated habitats, and NASA is offering a prize of $ 2.25 million to anyone who can design a 3D printed habitat for Mars.

It will be important to use the resources of the planet, as carrying water to Mars will use a lot of resources – water is heavy to carry across space.

It will be important to extract water from the Martian soil, which is feasible now that scientists know Mars once had flowing rivers.

This water can be used to generate drinking water, breathable air, and rocket fuel, but there is still the issue of food and other vital supplies.

Martians will have to grow their own plants and that means removing toxins from the Martian soil and using what we have learned on Earth about hydroponics – which is the growing of plants without soil.

The new science of genetic engineering might make it possible for Martians to engineer offspring adapted to conditions on mars.

There is also the strategy of changing Mars to better suit humans, rather than the other way around, through the process of terraforming.

This will require lots of greenhouse gases to warm up the planet, and it could also unleash frozen reserves of water buried under the soil.

The vision of some is to create a Mars where humans, or genetically engineered humans, could live on it without need for a spacesuit.

Certainly, the exploration of Mars up to now, which has been a fascinating story, has shown that it has the resources to support life.

The key life-supporting compounds of oxygen, nitrogen and water are available on Mars, though harnessing these will be a big challenge.

The Martian soil contains compounds with high chemical energy and this would help to manufacture rocket fuels on mars.

There is potential to harness solar and wind power, which are available on Mars too.

The new technology of 3D printing would also help Martians to print spare parts when things break rather than wait for Earth supplies.

Why go?

It’s in our nature to explore, and like ants, if some intrepid individuals don’t explore the health of the colony is at risk.

This is the second coming of space exploration. It is not driven by fear, as it was before, but by curiosity and our need to keep developing.














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