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Brittas Bay sand dunes being used for Mars tests

AN IRISH scientist is studying a beach in Co Wicklow to help understand how the surface of Mars could be used for a real-life Interstellar-type human settlement.

Dr Mary Bourke - one of the world's leading experts on the Martian landscape - has revealed how the sand dunes at Brittas Bay are helping her to better understand the windswept Red Planet.

Blockbuster hit Interstellar, starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, is reigniting the public's interest in space travel.

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And further interest has been generated by missions such as the Mars One reality TV project that could rocket Irish astrophysicist candidate Joseph Roche on a one-way trip 55 million miles into space

"We can't go presently to Mars," said Dr Bourke, an academic from Trinity College, "so we do analogue studies where we go to landscapes in Ireland, Africa and Australia and we study those desert landscapes, landscapes with dunes and with very large dry canyons like we find on Mars.

"We take that knowledge and transfer it to other planets like Mars and try to figure out the story behind how that landscape formed."

Although missions to Mars are capturing the public's imagination, Dr Bourke told RTE's Science Squad she wouldn't like to venture there at the moment.

"I would love to be a geologist on the surface of Mars," she said, "but with the current technology of transport of humans to there and the prospects of survivability, not right now.

"Perhaps my daughter will be an astronaut who will go and live on Mars."

Dr Bourke said people such as Dublin scientist Dr Roche, who hopes to go the planet with the Mars One mission, will be in a highly-volatile landscape with extreme temperatures and exploding meteorites.

"Mars is very inhospitable to people right now," she said. "On a daily cycle you might have something like 50 Celsius experienced between the morning and night.

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"We have a very thick atmosphere here relative to Mars. Even small meteorites the size of a pebble at terminal velocity hitting anything on the ground, like a human - that will be a very extreme situation for the astronaut.

"We documented that happening frequently on Mars.

"The winds are howling on Mars and we know there are sandstorms that engulf the entire planet."

The Mars One initiative, set up by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp and scientist Arno Wielders, who is also from Holland, will see two dozen pioneers abandon Earth and embark on a risky mission to begin a new life on Mars by 2025.

hnews@herald.ie


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