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Satnews Daily
June 25th, 2014

Thales Alenia Space UK—Students Loft 80 Martian Experiments Via Balloon (STEM)

[SatNews] On Thursday, June 19, 2014 the MARSBalloon mission launched 80 student experiments designed to test how everyday objects will survive on Mars.

This is the first flight of a unique project aimed to encourage young people to take up careers in the UK space industry. The project was devised and is run by young space engineers from Thales Alenia Space (TAS) UK with funding from the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The experiments were carried 30km up into Earth’s atmosphere on a high altitude balloon, named Tharsis after a volcanic region of Mars, where they experienced temperatures as low as -50°C, pressures of 1 percent of that at sea level and increased levels of radiation; conditions which are very similar to that of the surface of Mars. These conditions can rapidly degrade materials, damage electronics and sterilize organics.

After a two hour flight from Frome, Somerset, the balloon and experiments landed on farmland in Pulham, Dorchester, and were safely recovered by the chase team an hour and a half later. The students were challenged to come up with experiments for testing anything that humans might want to take or do on Mars in the future. All of the experiments had to fit inside a Kinder Surprise™ toy capsule and were mounted onto a special tray beneath the balloon to maximize their exposure to the hostile environment.

The view from the balloon at 30km altitude, with the Bournemouth coastline visible on the right.

The idea for the mission was inspired by the need to show how fun and diverse careers in space engineering and science (and other STEM subjects) can be to meet the government’s goal of quadrupling the size of the UK Space industry by 2030. This means the industry is going to need 70,000 new space engineers, operators and scientists in the next 15 years to continue the vital work that Space science and satellites do for our world [Space Innovation and Growth Strategy 2014-2030].

Andrew Bacon (26), TAS UK’s lead engineer for the project, said, “MARSBalloon is a great opportunity for young people to become involved in the future exploration of Mars whilst showing them that we have a thriving Space industry in the UK and that we need them to help it grow.”

The next MARSBalloon launch, named Elysium after another Martian volcanic region, is planned for mid-October and there are still plenty of spaces available. UK secondary school teachers interested in entering their class or club into this flight should register on the project website: http://www.marsballoon.com/

The experiments recovered from both Tharsis and Elysium will be returned to the students who made them—they will be encouraged to write up their scientific results for publishing on the project website.