Mars rocks, hard drilling and space truckers

Patrick Hughes

Patrick Hughes on this year’s UofG space conference

The Annual Glasgow Space Conference, held in mid-October in the University of Glasgow, is the opportunity for early and late-career space science researchers and industry workers to come together, share research and give talks on the work being done around the city. Here are a couple of the highlights.

Martian Meteorites – Ainé O’ Brien

The Mars’ Curiosity rover, launched in 2011, sits in the bed of an ancient lake which existed some four billion years ago – a good place to look for signs of life. In June, the team behind Curiosity made an announcement: just 4 cm below the Martian surface, they discovered organic (carbon-based) material. This was surprising. Mars, being subject to lethal blasts of solar radiation on a regular basis, was assumed to be too inhospitable for organic material to exist so close to the surface – the fact that this stuff had survived without being broken down was big news.

However, Curiosity’s ability to analyse the material is limited. The technique it uses is effective, but inherently destructive – we learn what something is made up of by breaking it down, so to get the big picture, we need to bring a sample home. Now that we know there’s something interesting there, the impetus for a sample-return mission has never been greater.

Ainé O’Brien is a 2nd year PhD student in the Planetary Science group at Glasgow. Using a technique known as Raman spectroscopy, she analyses kerogen-like organic material within meteorites which have fallen to Earth from Mars. What she wants to know is this: are these organic compounds indigenous to Mars, or remnants of collisions with carbon-rich meteorites in the early solar system?

“The implications of this work is that by getting a better idea of where this stuff comes from, we’ll get a better idea of what the Martian carbon cycle is like”, Ainé explains. “Mars does have a carbon cycle, it’s not anywhere nearly as complicated or dynamic as ours, but the point is that there is one.”  

Part of this investigation for Ainé involves pushing the frontiers of the kinds of analysis being done on these sorts of samples, informing the analyses performed by the Mars 2020 rover, which will be better equipped to survey the landscape.

It also means when we do bring a sample home, we’ll be able to maximise the science we get out of it. By learning a little bit more about Mars’ carbon cycle, we’ll have a better idea of what to look out for in the future.

Patrick Harkness – Planetary Drilling and Surface Exploration

Digging a few centimetres into the Martian surface is one thing, but the low gravity on Mars (being around a third of what we experience on Earth) makes drilling below the Martian soil a tricky business. Patrick Harkness from the University of Glasgow’s School of Engineering gave us a glimpse into the high-frequency, ultrasonic drill being developed in Glasgow’s new Space Technology and Exploration laboratory, which could allow rovers to obtain samples from much deeper below the Martian surface than previously possible.

“We know that there’s volatile material just below the Martian surface, so what we’d like to do is drill out this material,” Patrick explains, “If we go to Mars where there’s weak gravity, we simply can’t push something down into the ground. We need to do low weight-on-bit drilling, possibly lower than anyone has tried before.”

To lower risk, the system also needs to be able to work with a high degree of autonomy, particularly if it’s operating in near freezing conditions, Patrick says:

“If you try to drill into material that’s close to freezing point, it will liquefy any volatile that’s in the material and it’ll refreeze somewhere else in your drill bit, and it’s never coming out again. It sets like concrete.”

The use of this new equipment is not limited to off-planet excursions. It could also be used to validate current climate models which come under criticism on the grounds that we just don’t know enough about the history of the Earth itself.

“It would be really good to understand the historic advance and retreat of the West Antarctic ice sheet,” Patrick says, explaining: “this is the weaker of the two Antarctic ice sheets and the one that may potentially collapse if temperatures continue to rise.”

“We would like to have data from underneath this ice sheet to understand whether there’s been a collapse before. If we can get samples of rock out from underneath the ice sheet, we can tell if they were ever exposed to sunlight and what the time history is of that exposure.”

Previous drilling missions in the Antarctic used industrial rigs so large that it takes 15-20 flights just to bring the hardware to the site. Provided this new piece of equipment can cut through bedrock, it will allow much smaller drills to be used in that environment. The good news is, it works… in the test room. Hopefully when it goes to the Antarctic in January 2019, it’ll work there too.

UK Space Agency

Visiting on behalf of the Space Agency were two ambassadors, Robert Garner, part of the UKSA’s chief engineer team and PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde, and Colin Baldwin, head of local regional growth.

Robert described the current state of affairs of the UKSA, its place in the UK economy and its burgeoning presence in the global space sector. Plans are in place for UK launches and talks are underway with near-neighbours about logistics. The recently introduced Space Industry Act (coming into power in 2020) lays the legislative groundwork for UK launches, however, the lack of regulatory experience in the UK may prove a challenge, with the UK’s previous launches all having been from Australia. Whether the UK can compete with established commercial launch sites, such as those in the North of Norway and Sweden, will be dictated by the market.

The space sector, being heavily concentrated in the south-east of England (with Scotland punching above its weight), currently stands to benefit only a small portion of the country. By working with local enterprise partners and bringing in new entrants from all over the UK, the UKSA hopes that the sector will benefit the economy on a wider scale and increase the value of the sector to £40bn by 2030. Colin explains, “We know that the existing sector as it currently stands, even with its growing presence, won’t be able to deliver [on its targets]. We need to look at how we can grow the sector and how we can bring new entrants in.”

“The big challenge that we have is that businesses don’t know that there are opportunities for them in the space sector. By working with local enterprise partnerships who have links into other sectors, they can help us to bring those companies in and we can provide them with the support they need to get involved.”

With new Scottish entrants like Alba-Orbital offering commercial satellite launches at around 50% lower than the standard market price, the future of the UK space sector looks promising.

Ryan Milligan – Space Truckers

Ryan Milligan is the shining example of the STEM career-fair favourite, “not all scientists wear white coats.” Formerly a truck driver and latterly an astrophysicist, Ryan has found a way to combine the two. By teaming up with Stellify Media productions in Northern Ireland, he helped produce and starred in show called “Space Truckers” – the cameras follows him as he hauls an outrageously expensive telescope around in a truck from Holland to Birr in Ireland, where the first ever spiral galaxies were discovered. The result is a quirky, slightly baffling but modern show that won’t fail to make you laugh. Speaking on his motivation behind the show, Ryan said:

“There’s a lot out there, with Brian Cox and the rest, which is great – but it tends to be very straight laced. We wanted something a bit more edgy, with a rock and roll soundtrack.”

“We wanted to get young kids interested, get out, get our hands dirty and build stuff from scratch to help open up science to people from different backgrounds who might think it’s very complicated, niche and elitist. Science has such a broad scope – there’s room for everybody.”

You can check out Space Truckers online at


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