SPACE that are exploiting Mars ’ current orbital proximity to Earth .
At its closest , Mars is about 57.6 million kilometres away , which most recently occurred on 6 October 2020 . That proximity was exploited by three separate robotic missions by NASA , the United Arab Emirates and China .
As well as leading ongoing projects studying Martian meteorites , Dr Darling is involved with the ExoMars mission , which is due to be launched in 2022 during Mars ’ next approach by the European Space Agency ( ESA ) in partnership with Russia ’ s Roscosmos .
The ExoMars payload is expected to include a drill designed to collect soil samples to a depth of two metres below the surface to search for signs of life – past or present – with Dr Darling part of the geology team guiding targeting and priorities .
While all these missions will bring about many discoveries – and awe viewers back on Earth – Dr Darling will be standing by , looking to mine the data for clues about Mars ’ deep past .
The questions that intrigue him most deal with Martian geology that speaks of a past topography that closely resembled Earth , including the presence of an atmosphere , oceans , rivers and volcanoes .
One key question is why Mars ’ s evolution diverged so drastically from Earth ’ s and what drove that divergence . Another is whether past similarities were sufficient for Mars to have started down the pathway of birthing and sustaining life .
“ Looking to the immediate future , I think we can better constrain the geological timeline for Mars and put some real radiometric age constraints on when things happened on Mars – when volcanism and impacts happened , when surface water disappeared and intertwining that with the search for life ,” Dr Darling says .
“ This is my main Martian project at the moment – a £ 350k STFC [ Science and Technology Facilities Council ] award to radiometrically date Martian magmatism . “ Because Earth and Mars may have started out similarly , but went down very different paths , this analysis stands to bring about a much better understanding of our own planet ’ s early history .”
PHOTO : 123RF
ISSUE 02 / 2021