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Man on Mars

Kennedy Space Centre, NASA, Florida

Man on Mars

“We are going on a journey”.
It was enticing words by Dr. Dava Newman, NASA’s Deputy Administrator at this year’s science festival in Dunedin, New Zealand.

NASA’s goal and aspirations for space exploration and travel are undeniably impressive. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to hear Dr. Dava Newman speak of current and future goals of NASA. It’s been 50 years of Mars exploration already. Mars is the same age geologically as Earth, but only has 1% atmosphere. At some point around 3.5 billion years ago Mars lost its atmosphere and magnetic shield, but no entirely its water supply. Recent discoveries have found seasonal flowing water on mars. Is there hope for life?

The International Space Station has 15 different nations working together for the future research of Mar’s mission. The research is intense; space propulsion, habitation systems, spacesuit technology, and human physiology are just to name a few. There is methane on Mars that is currently be researched as potential fuel supply. The 2020’s will be devoted to the Space Launch System, sending rockets to mars and the curiosity rover. Man will be going to Mars in the 2030’s – most of us will see this victory in our lifetime. Missions to the moon are back in action; it’ll be a transit stop enroute to Mars. At least 6-8 months of space travel to Mars is not for the faint hearted – and then there is the return trip to endure. ‘Boots on Mars’ will be an ongoing challenge for NASA, but they are up for it.


In fact NASA has 100 missions going on at present across a range of scales. The future of aviation is exciting – low boom super sonic aircraft, fuel-efficient and hybrid electric aircraft are ongoing projects. So to is the advancement of satellite technology. The Hubble Telescope has already been providing 26 years of incredible imagery and the discoveries of over 3000 new galaxies. The James Webb Space telescope is next in line for future exploration of dark matter. It’s 100 times more powerful than the Hubble telescope.

Intrepid Sea Air & Space Museum, New York

Currently NASA has 20 earth observing satellites observing climate data, soil moisture and sea level rise. These ‘Eyes of the Earth’ are indeed revealing an increase in global temperatures, supporting climate change predictions. Ongoing support for citizen science and environmental education is GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment). Both NASA and NSF (National Science Foundation) sponsor GLOBE, which provides international science and educational programmes. Currently there are 117 countries involved, with over 29,000 schools and 25,000 teachers. It’s a great educational resource to get the students engaged and is targeted at elementary and high school level. NASA is global is seeking new ideas and talent from around the world, the Internet and social media guides us there on quite a journey.


Rock Art

Japanese Gardens

Let’s embrace some tranquility – rock therapy can work wonders. Japanese Gardens are ultimately a landscape designer’s paradise. The gardens may not always be large, but they make a statement with topiary and gravel raked in distinctive patterns. Simplicity is beautiful. I wonder how a rock garden can be applied as a science activity?

I was in Kyoto during the cherry blossom season in 2015, exploring a multitude of temples and gardens. The rock garden of Daisen In Temple is designed to express the spirit of yen through rocks, sand and gravel. Smooth flat rounded rocks convey calm and solid energy. The curves in the raked gravel were symbolic of wave energy, while the pointed rocks generated a strong and active mood. The essence of the temple was to allow for contemplation and smoothing of the minds distractions. I needed it.

Art Paints

Let’s break down the rock process, minerals in particular. Minerals can be used in so many different ways – a fun experiment is for students to make their own art paint. Various rock minerals paint different colours such as iron oxide for red, azurite for blue and malachite/copper for green. It’s certainly an effort to grind a stone to power – an easier way to create fine pigments in the lab is to grind up pastels. It may be cheating, but it’s time effective.

Making oil paints will get messy, and safety gear such as a mask, gloves and goggles is an absolute must. Oil paints are a mixture of pigments with linseed oil, mixing will take time and require some patience. A more quick approach is to make water coloured paints. Pigments are mixed with water and a binder such as egg yolk. The paint can then be used straight away.

What makes for a more fun experiment is to simply used ingredients that are found in the kitchen. Approximately a cup of baking soda and slightly less of vinegar are first mixed in a large bowl. In fact, it is these ingredients that create the foaming lava for a volcano experiment. Then add a small amount of corn syrup with a cup of corn starch to change the consistency. Pour the mixture into an ice cube tray and allow to settle for a few minutes before adding and mixing different pigments for colour. Allow to dry over a couple of days away from direct sunlight. Another option is to add food colouring to create a palette of different colours. The opaqueness of the watercolour paints will depend on the consistency and the pigments used.

Cave Paintings

Cave paintings have always intrigued me – from looking at the various materials they used to what they drew. A mixture of minerals, plants and animals were combined to create the earthy colours that have lasted over incredible time periods. A good mixture of clay ochre created yellow, brown and red colours, magnesium oxide and charcoal produced black and calcite created white. Other minerals such as feldspar and quartz may have be added to prevent the paint from cracking when drying.

I’ve seen some brilliant cave paintings and frescoes in different parts of the world. One place that is particular memorable is Sigiriya Rock in Sri Lanka. It was rich in cultural significance and kingdom history, and equally so from a geological perspective. Sigiriya Rock has been formed from a hardened volcanic plug, from what is today an extinct volcano. Natural cave shelters and rock overhangs have been a place of shelter for many monks and many traces of paintings have since disappeared. We are travelling back in time to King Kassapap’s region, 450 – 500 years AD. It was once a site for a Royal Palace and Government with landscaped gardens; pavilions and even a pool perched on the top of the rock summit. It stands at 370 metres elevation, quite an achievement when you glance at the vertical gradient. Rock steps engraved into the side of the rock were still visible to see.

Also visible to see were the frescoes about half way Sigiriya Rock. An open-air spiral staircase guides keen enthusiasts into a small enclave. I wondered what inspired people to draw such wonderful pieces of art into the rock face so high up? And the paintings were of equal interest – buxom attractive women are linked to tantric Buddhism from the 5th century. It was the expression in their faces and eyes that was mystifying – this rock art still survives to show an enchanting tale.