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Westminster PhD Astrobiology student participates in ground-breaking research for search for life on Mars

8 April 2019

Mars mission

Rebeca Barcenilla Garcia, first year PhD Astrobiology student at the University of Westminster, has taken part in the European Space Agency’s (ESA) research initiative to identify signs of life on Mars, which will use a newly-built ExoMars rover to be sent to the Red Planet.

The project forms part of a wider European mission set to travel to Mars in 2021 and is one of a a number of pre-test trials in preparation for the main mission.

Rebeca, who is under the PhD supervision of Professor of Science Communication at the University of Westminster, Lewis Dartnell, participated in one of the trial runs, called ‘ExoFit’ tests the short name for ‘ExoMars-like Field Testing’. She was part of an advanced team of scientists and engineers, who worked together to tackle real challenges of the Red Planet including unpredictable weather conditions, communication delays and tight deadlines. The results of the ExoFit will help to prepare for the actual mission’s safe operation far across the Solar System.

The trial model, named Charlie, was sent to the Atacama Desert in Chile equipped with a set of cameras and proxy instruments including a radar, a spectrometer and a drill to replicate Martian operations, and worked to deliver data and satellite images of the terrain. With this rover, the team in the UK were able to make commands from nearly 7,000 miles away in order to see how Charlie responded over vast distances.

The project ran between mid-February and the beginning of March, and was the first time that the European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications (ECSAT) acted as mission control. The future ExoMars rover has been named Rosalind Franklin after the UK scientist and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, and will be the first of its kind to travel across the Martian surface and drill underground to determine any evidence of life.

Speaking about her participation in the ExoFit trial, Rebeca said: “I feel so fortunate to have been a part of the ExoFiT trials during the first year of my PhD. Most people only get to see the results of space missions, the pretty images, the scientific discoveries, the popular scientist talking about the mission, but experiencing what goes on behind the scenes was a real eye-opener.

“Now I have a better understanding of the complexity behind a space mission, and I can attest to the tireless work and collaboration between scientists in all corners of the world. We put Charlie (the rover) through its paces and practiced the science operations just as if it were on Mars. We need to practice here before the real ExoMars rover travels to Mars, to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible once it gets there. One thing is for sure, I’ll never be able to look at an image of Mars with the same eyes again!”

Find out more about ESA’s ExoMars project here.

Main cover image: Main screens of the mission's control room, showing the trial rover in the Atacama Desert, Chile.

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