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Journalist Report: 02/05/2013
Melanie Newfield

Hello Mars, this is Te Awamutu calling

While crew 123 – the TasMars mission – has some pretty ambition scientific goals, there’s another equally important goal for our mission. A big part of our program is outreach, connecting with students in New Zealand and bringing the world of Mars exploration alive for them.

New Zealand is one of the best places in the world to view the night sky. 
Our low population density means less light pollution and our low levels of heavy industry mean less air pollution – and most of the air pollution we produce gets blown away by our constant wind. Our small size means that nowhere is too remote – the world-class Mt John observatory is only a few hours drive from our second largest city – and within walking distance of the town of Tekapo. Not only that, it is one of the few research observatories where you can go as a tourist to view the stars (and during the day  to have a cup of coffee with one of the most spectacular views in the world).

Of course, our less than reliable weather means we sometimes can’t actually see the stars. But I guess you can’t have everything.

For a country with such great stargazing, the idea of actually getting into space seems quite remote. Occasional news stories report on NASA or the International Space Station, but space travel a long way from the thoughts or dreams of the average New Zealander.

So having a New Zealander at MDRS is a great way to get their imagination fired up with dreams of space travel.

Since we have so much outreach to do, we are lucky to have some great outreach materials provided by JPL, including a full-sized model of a Curiosity rover wheel and a 1/10 scale model of Curiosity. This model has featured in many of our pictures, especially as the hills behind the hab have a stunning resemblance to parts of Gale Crater. Our outreach activities included the day with Channel Seven Australia; they share their stories with TV3 in New Zealand, and were especially keen to talk to me to give the story for TV3 a New Zealand flavour. We also spent a morning filming ourselves and life around the hab to share with New Zealand schools via the Kiwispace Foundation and with Australian children via a
Channel 10 science show. We have at least three live chat sessions scheduled with New Zealand schools.

Yesterday we did our first live chat, with the high school in Te Awamutu.
Te Awamutu is a town of about ten thousand people in the lush rural area called the Waikato. It mainly exists to support the surrounding farming areas, especially dairy farming, and it has a large dairy factory. Towns like Te Awamutu drive the New Zealand export economy, but they feel a long way from the world of space exploration.

As far away as Te Awamutu may seem from Mars, the students sure seemed keen on it. The first question asked – via our 5 minute Skype linkup – was “What is at the core of Mars?”, which I admit I had no idea about. Fortunately our science officer is a NASA geologist who works on Mars geology – so it was the perfect question for her. So now I know that once Mars had a molten core like Earth, but now we think it is mostly cooled and solid.

Once we switched over to Chatroll, I got the first question I could actually answer: “How different is gravity on Mars to Earth, and what effects does that have on the human body?”. It was a really fascinating one for me, because I’m a biologist, and I’m interested in how living things survive in extreme conditions. The interesting point for me is that Mars gravity is only one third of earth gravity, so if you magically went straight from Earth to Mars you would feel really light. Only that’s not going to happen – between Earth and Mars there would be 6 months of weightlessness. This length of time would cause serious bone loss and muscle wasting, and so the gravity of Mars would feel quite intense for those astronauts.

After that, the questions came thick and fast, and I typed as fast as I could for 30 minutes – answering nearly 30 questions. We were all kept busy providing answers to a great range of questions – from the food we are eating to methods of travel to Mars, from Martian weather to the Soviet space program in the 1970s. The mother of one student wanted to know whether we argued, a question we could fortunately answer in the negative.

Our next chat session is tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to seeing what has inspired the curiosity of students another New Zealand high school – Kuranui in Greytown.


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