The Oxford University professor digging for life on Mars from 140 million miles away in Oxford

The distance in between Professor Scott McLennan’s desk at Oxford College and Mars is about 140 million miles, but it won’t halt him making use of his computer system to direct Nasa‘s most current spacecraft on the Purple Planet’s floor.

He is a member of a crew that controls the automobile-sized car or truck, named Curiosity, as they attempt to find out if Mars when experienced the right situations to help everyday living. 

Each and every member has a diverse location of know-how, these as geology or atmospheric science, or accountability for the rover’s cameras and instruments.

Man on mission: Professor Scott McLeannan can control the Mars-roving Curiosity from the comfort of his study

Man on mission: Professor Scott McLeannan can manage the Mars-roving Curiosity from the convenience of his study 

Prof McLennan states: ‘Every working day Curiosity sends info back to Earth. That decides what we do and where we go next. To make anything transpire, we have to give it meticulously prepared guidelines.’

Curiosity has sent residence hundreds of illustrations or photos of unparalleled clarity of the surface area of Mars to assistance offer information and facts to build a thorough image of the planet’s previous, when it was considerably warmer and had hurrying rivers and deep lakes.

Thanks to professionals this sort of as Prof McLennan, Curiosity has gathered and analysed rock samples in its on-board lab, suggesting that there could have been lifetime on Mars a few billion yrs back.

So considerably, the proof is inconclusive. But, claims Prof McLennan, with Nasa’s up coming Mars mission because of to start in July, this may perhaps alter. 

Curiosity, which is 10ft tall and 9ft extensive, was released in November 2011, achieving Mars 9 months afterwards. Its descent was meticulously slowed by retro-rockets and a supersonic parachute. 

Landing at the base of the 100-mile-extensive Gale Crater, it was designed to work for a minimum of a Martian year – about 687 days – but is still working.

It has a 7ft robotic arm, weighs about a ton and its electricity offer will come from a slug of plutonium.

Prof McLennan, 67, suggests Gale Crater is now arid but there is ‘evidence this was when a enormous freshwater lake, which may well have been hundreds of feet deep. Rivers tumbled down the crater walls and shaped deltas when they arrived at the lake’s edge.’

Whilst midday temperatures there now from time to time increase only just higher than freezing, at night time they plunge to minus 70C. 

But three billion several years in the past, ‘the local climate could have been a bit like an English winter season,’ says Prof McLennan.

So much, Curiosity has travelled 13 miles across the surface area of the earth and climbed far more than 1,400ft up the side of a mountain. 

Most impressively, very last week it navigated a 30-diploma gully involving crags to reach the leading of the escarpment. 

With its flat best higher than a line of vertical cliffs, to the untrained eye it seems like a Peak District moorland edge.

Curiosity’s future job, which it might execute this week, is to drill down and acquire a sample of powder from a rock slab.

Miles apart: The Curiosity may be 140 million miles apart and the professor's computer is able to direct its movements

Miles aside: The Curiosity may be 140 million miles aside and the professor’s pc is ready to immediate its actions

This will be dropped as a result of a port into the rover, exactly where instruments will analyse the rock by heating it to much more than 1,000C. It was these tactics that led to the discovery of organic carbon compounds that could be proof of primitive lifestyle.

Nonetheless, Mars researchers usually repeat a comment by the late astronomer Carl Sagan that ‘extraordinary claims call for amazing evidence’ – which is why no one particular is shouting that they have evidence of everyday living just nevertheless.

Yet, Prof McLennan says the up coming mission, Mars 2020, has been personalized by the endeavor to find it. 

The new rover, Perseverance, is prepared to land future yr in a crater named Jezero.

He hopes that immediately after two further more missions, samples will be sent again to Earth and present experts with anything that has so considerably been unattainable – examples of Martian sedimentary rock to analyse below, exactly where instruments this kind of as electron microscopes may well expose fossils of one-celled organisms.

Whichever the final result, Prof McLennan is positive it will be truly worth the wait: ‘All of us involved consider it an absolute privilege. Some days you get lost in the depth.

‘And then you move back and you only marvel that you happen to be observing a thing amazing that is in no way been viewed prior to.

‘If that does not move you, very little in science ever will.’