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Astronaut touches down in Swiss Cottage

Oli Usher10 October 2014

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NASA Administrator Charles Bolden visits UCL Academy

Charlie Bolden was born in the deep south of the US, during the days of segregation and institutionalised racism. Despite this inauspicious start in life, he went on to a high-flying military career, commanded the Space Shuttle, spent 28 days in orbit and, in 2009, was made head of NASA by President Obama. He is the first African American to hold the position.

During a trip to the UK to meet senior officials in the UK and Italian space agencies, Bolden dropped into the UCL Academy for a few hours to talk to the students and teachers there. The visit was organised by the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at UCL.

He started off with a conventional inspirational speech, full of quotable soundbites – “study hard, work hard, don’t be afraid of failure” – as well as first-hand anecdotes from the four Space Shuttle missions he flew on. (Most memorably, he went on a long and highly entertaining digression about Newton’s laws of motion, and how in microgravity you need to be attached to a computer keyboard if you want to avoid launching yourself across the cabin when you type.)

As he went on, and the students gradually became more and more enthused, more and more hands shot up in the audience.

A quarter of an hour in, any pretence of this being a lecture was off. Instead, it had become a wide-ranging conversation covering everything from what happens if someone falls ill in space (there is someone with basic surgical training on every mission) to whether or not there is wi-fi on the International Space Station (there is).

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Narrowing our search for life on Mars

news editor12 September 2013

Life on Mars? (Image by MelissaBowersock on Flickr.)

Life on Mars? (Image by
MelissaBowersock
on Flickr.)

pencil-iconWritten by Cassy Fiford, a recent graduate from UCL and a science communication intern at the European Planetary Science Congress.

What might Martian life look like? Not like little green men, according to Dr Lewis Dartnell, a UK Space Agency research fellow who was talking at the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) currently being held at UCL. Dr Dartnell is a former member of the Centre for Planetary Sciences at UCL/Birkbeck.

Even the gloomy Monday morning rain did not dampen the spirits of the many scientists who joined the congress at UCL, each counting down until the 2016 launch of ExoMars, a European space mission with the purpose of finding life on Mars. UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory is playing a leading role in the development of ExoMars, including the design of the main camera, which will land with the second ExoMars probe in 2019.

Contrary to the classic Martian stereotype of little green men, Dr Dartnell and his team have focused on microscopic signs of life. They found that certain minuscule biomarkers, chemical ‘fingerprints’ of life, could be able to withstand the hostile conditions of Mars and may be indicative of life on our neighbouring planet. The survival of these man-made biomarkers in a Mars-like environment means the real thing might have survived on Mars and could be detected by the ExoMars programme.

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To boldly go: pushing the limits of human exploration

Clare S Ryan26 October 2012

Space shuttle Endeavour in the streets
of Los Angeles en route to the California
ScienCenter (from vpisteve on Flickr).

Human exploration is big news. Felix Baumgartner recently made headlines around the world after becoming the first skydiver to fall faster than the speed of sound.

It seems we are fascinated by people who push the limits of what is possible, and so I was unsurprised to have to squeeze into Dr Kevin Fong’s recent Lunch Hour Lecture, ‘To boldly go’.

Dr Fong, who admits he has been at UCL “for-EVER”, studied both physics and medicine here and now leads a double life as a NASA scientist and a consultant anaesthetist at UCL Hospital.

As a physicist and a physiologist, he is in an unusual position to tell the story of human exploration and how we have triumphed over not just geographical boundaries, but also the limits of the human body.

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