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Bristol researchers to explore Mars and its environment

Visualisation of zebrafish muscle and bone using micro-CT and biorefringence microscopy - spine section

Visualisation of zebrafish bone using micro-CT to show the structure of the spine

Press release issued: 26 October 2017

Three academics from the University of Bristol will explore Mars and the microgravity environment, thanks to funding from the UK Space Agency in the latest round of the Aurora Science Programme and the Human Spaceflight and Microgravity programme.

The Aurora Science Programme targets questions of past and present life on Mars, investigating the presence of water and the geochemical environment.

Dr Robert Myhill, from the School of Earth Sciences, will be researching the thermochemical evolution and state of Mars’ deep interior to characterise Mars’ internal structure, and how this structure came into being over the last 4.5 billion years.

In the first part of his project, high pressure laboratory experiments will be carried out to recreate conditions at the bottom of Mars’ mantle. These experiments will look at reactions between the iron and sulphur in Mars’ deep interior. The second part of the project will look back in time, to the first few million years after Mars’ formation, when its core was separating from a huge ocean of magma. High-pressure experiments will discover how conditions and composition affected how elements were dissolved into the magma ocean.

Dr Nick Teanby, also from Earth Sciences, will investigate links between atmospheric and surface processes with data from the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter spacecraft. The project will use infra-red spectra to establish the global energy balance of Mars’ climate. This will allow atmospheric circulation to be understood and will help interpret how trace gases are redistributed around the planet.

The UK Space Agency has also recently developed a microgravity and space environments research programme, which supports concepts and designs for experiments that will deliver high-quality science on the International Space Station.

Professor Kate Robson Brown, from the Departments of Anthropology and Archaeology, and Mechanical Engineering, and Dr Chrissy Hammond from the School of Physiology Pharmacology and Neuroscience, will develop a zebrafish model to study the response of two musculoskeletal regions, the spine and the sensory system for hearing, to microgravity. These regions are a research priority because their deterioration in space is known to cause lasting challenges for astronauts, they are complex systems involving soft and hard tissues, and improving our understanding of spinal and hearing disorders could benefit the health of large populations of people on earth.

Science Minister, Jo Johnson, said: “Science enables and shapes the UK’s future in space exploration. This government funding will play a vital role in ensuring UK academics can continue to study the secrets of our solar system, from the polar regions of the Moon to the potential of life on Mars.

“Research and innovation are at the core of our Industrial Strategy, and by investing in these types of projects, we are reinforcing our position as a world leader in these important and exciting areas.”

The research team, who will build an international collaboration with researchers within the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), includes colleagues Professor Richard Trask from the University of Bath; Andrew Caldwell from RAL Space.

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