IOP lecturer goes underground to talk about life on Mars

9 September 2015

Astronauts spending any time on Mars will have to burrow underground, which makes the venue for the IOP’s next public lecture – a tunnel in King’s Cross – so fitting, according to the speaker, Lewis Dartnell.

Lewis Dartnell

Dartnell, who currently specialises in astrobiology, said astronauts on Mars would have to bury their crew habitat under a metre or two of Martian regolith to protect themselves from cosmic rays, which could be “a bit like living in a Hobbit hole, but not as cosy”. Surviving exposure to radiation on the journey to the planet and on its surface would be the major challenge of any future mission there, he said.

His own research, at the University of Leicester’s Space Research Centre, focuses on rather smaller forms of life – microbial organisms that could conceivably live on Mars today or may once have flourished there. If they exist, or have existed in the past, they may also have survived by living beneath the surface, he said.

The Martian soil is a prime target in searches for evidence of microbial life, such as the ExoMars mission that launches in 2018. It would also play a crucial role in enabling astronauts to survive a long stay on Mars, as they would have to grow their own food and produce other supplies using the material that they found on the surface, Dartnell said.

While living underground, human explorers would need artificial light, but to avoid this being too depressing, LEDs could be used to generate various colours such as bright blue to simulate the light at midday or yellow for an evening effect, Dartnell said. “That’s why the venue in King’s Cross is so suitable – it is a beautiful tunnel with wonderful light effects, but it also has this feeling of being trapped in an underground space.

“I am very excited about speaking in this unique venue. I have lectured in the Royal Albert Hall, on board a cruise ship, on a canal boat, at music festivals and arts events and in several quirky places. The important thing when doing outreach is to take science to places where people do not expect to find it, to surprise them and perhaps to change their opinions on what science is about.

“It’s important to not just engage with people who are already interested in science. You have got to take science to new audiences and to show them why it is important today.”

The lecture, “Beyond Earth: in search of life”, is being held on 8 October in the Spur Tunnel, King’s Cross, close to where the IOP is to move to its new home. Entry is free, but registration is required.

Dartnell is also speaking about his book, The Knowledge, at the British Science Festival in Bradford on 10 September.

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