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Aussies plan for Mars weather forecasts


A team of Australian astronomers have developed a way of forecasting the weather on Mars – without putting their toes in space and created beautiful images of our neighbouring planet.

Their discoveries will help us determine if Mars was a kinder place for life in the past. And by forecasting the Martian weather they hope to be able to reduce the risks to spacecraft, such as the recent failed Beagle mission and possible future manned missions to Mars.

Sarah Chamberlain of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology is one of 16 early-career scientists selected in the Fresh Science competition. The program is supported by the British Council Australia and the winner will receive a study tour to the UK where they will present their work.

Sarah and the associate director of the ACA, Dr Jeremy Bailey (also of the Anglo-Australian Observatory), observed Mars during its close approach to Earth in August 2003. They used the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

By using near infra-red light they hoped to be able to map the distribution of elements in the atmosphere and on the surface of Mars. “Along the way we obtained the clearest images of Mars ever taken from Earth,” says Sarah. "The technique we used will help resolve the controversy as to whether water ever flowed across the surface of Mars. We will be able to detect where rocks and minerals have been chemically altered by water flow.” "The most exciting application is a new technique to allow us to predict the weather on Mars."

The atmosphere on Mars is primarily carbon dioxide. By mapping the variations in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and comparing this with topographical maps of Mars they can detect and monitor the movement of pressure systems (what we know as weather) in the Martian atmosphere. Predicting the weather on Mars will reduce to risk to landing spacecraft. “If we knew the weather systems on Mars, losses such as the recent Beagle 2 lander might be prevented,” says Sarah.

“Our work shows that ground-based observations can still produce relevant and cutting-edge science without the cost and risk of launching a spacecraft." “Ground-based observations need not be relegated to the back bench when it comes to planetary exploration of our near-by neighbours,” says Sarah.

Niall Byrne | alfa
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