18 May 2012

Funding for Open University research to explore potential for life and habitats of Mars

The Open University has received three funding awards, totalling £682,656, from the UK Space Agency’s £2M allocation for science associated with Mars exploration. The projects will enhance the UK’s science capabilities and help understand the Martian environment and its potential for life.

Commenting on the awards, Professor Simon Kelley, Director of the Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research (CEPSAR), at The Open University (OU), said: “The Science Faculty at The Open University has an international reputation and a great heritage in planetary, space science and astronomy research, and we continue our involvement in current missions such as ROSETTA which will land on a comet in 2014. We have an excellent laboratory infrastructure here at the OU, and that’s allowing us to pursue exciting science and study potential habitats that might support life on Mars.”

Dr Karen Olsson-Francis has been awarded a five year fellowship to focus on bridging the gap between what is known about life in terrestrial, aerobic environments and what is required to understand the extent in which anaerobic, microbial processes may have occurred on Mars. The study will have major implications for understanding life forms on Mars and will suggest key bio-signatures for detecting such life.

Dr Axel Hagermann has been awarded funds to investigate a phenomenon called the ‘solid state greenhouse effect’ in the Martian environment, in other words the importance of the ice caps in influencing Martian climate. The solid greenhouse effect is likely to influence how the Martian polar caps evolve and determine the thermodynamic conditions within them.

Professor Simon Kelley and colleague Dr Susanne Schwenzer will work in collaboration with Dr John Bridges at Leicester University to study minerals formed when hot or cold water interacts with rocks on Mars. Dr Schwenzer’s models will help to estimate the conditions prevailing during mineral formation and will provide a data set for astrobiologists to assess what kind of life might have survived in those conditions.

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