Local medico geared for Mars
Hobart can now boast a Mars-ready medico as well as a scientist who plays a major role in NASA's expeditions to the surface of the Red Planet.
CSIRO's Paulo de Souza is well-known internationally for his role in miniaturising instruments used on the Martian surface by the robot explorers Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity.
Alicia Tucker, a Hobart medical practitioner and space enthusiast, is less well known outside Tasmania, but she can now lay claim to being one of Earth's most Mars-ready medicos.
Dr Tucker is an emergency physician and has worked in such remote locations as the Australian outback and Antarctica.
Her recognised expertise in remote medicine won her a place this year in a team that simulated life on Mars during 10 days in an American desert.
"Last year I received an email from the Wilderness Medicine Society which had in it the line: 'Learn aerospace medicine and live like an astronaut on Mars'," Dr Tucker told the ABC.
"It's essentially adult space camp, so what's not to love about it?"
Dr Tucker packed up and headed for the Mars Desert Research Station, about 500km from Salt Lake City in the American State of Utah.
The station was built in 2002 by the Mars Society, a volunteer-driven, not-for-profit organisation dedicated to promoting human exploration of the Red Planet.
The site includes living quarters, a GreenHab to grow plants and process grey water, an observatory and an engineering area.
Crews of six volunteers at a time live at the facility for two weeks, conducting experiments and simulating how life on Mars might be for explorers from Earth.
The station is formed by a series of small domes where specialists from various disciplines conduct experiments to work out how humans might be able to support themselves in a Martian environment.
"It feels like it's in the middle of nowhere," Dr Tucker said.
"We spent 10 days living in this environment. Essentially we locked the door on day two and that was it.
"If you went outside you had to go through an airlock in your spacesuit and when you went outside you were limited in your time ... by the virtual oxygen supply that you had on your back."
Dr Tucker was part of a six-person crew from around the world, each with medical backgrounds, who worked on a number of simulated medical emergencies.
Having learnt a lot about aerospace medicine, Dr Tucker said she was proud to have been a part of such an experiment.
She said she had spent a gap year in London, but her two sons could conceivably consider a gap year on Mars.
"I think they [my sons] were excited, but for them it was more about what kind of presents they could get when I got back.
"It's probably later on that they'll see my flight suit with my name on it and I'll be able to show them pictures and hopefully they'll be proud of me and feel as though I might be part of developing opportunities for their future."
Dr Tucker's father, Dr Alan Tucker, was also a remote medical practitioner, working for a time among isolated Aboriginal communities in central Australia.
Tasmania's leading authority on Mars is Dr Paulo de Souza, a world leader in research on micro-sensor technologies and systems.
He captured the world media's attention when he developed thousands of environmental sensors small enough to be carried like backpacks by honey bees.
Dr de Souza is a collaborating scientist on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission, which sent two six-wheeled robots, Spirit and Opportunity, to the Martian surface in 2003.
He is also involved in the much larger rover — the VW-sized Curiosity — that was landed in 2012.
Spirit's mission ended in March 2010 when it was immobilised, however Opportunity was still exploring in May 2017 and had edged its way over more than 43km of the uneven, alien surface.
Information relayed back to Earth by the robots has been the foundation of an exhaustive series of scientific papers published by Dr de Souza.
Among findings published in the journal Science is evidence that freshwater rivers and streams existed 3.8 billion years ago in the Meridiani Plains region, near the Martian equator.
"All the evidence we have indicates the local Martian water was like spring water that you could drink," Dr de Souza, said.
"It would have been hospitable to any microbial life that may have existed at the time."
But, according to Dr de Souza, an asteroid impact exposed volcanic rocks that were then subjected to chemical weathering, resulting in salts dissolving into the water.
"As time passed with this and other impacts in the region, a more acidic environment developed, with the water becoming as strong as vinegar."
Dr de Souza and colleagues have determined the chemistry of the ancient water through minerals found in the sediments.
"We not only know that there was water on Mars, but we can see how that water changed over time forming different minerals," he said.
"Looking at those minerals is just like looking at a book of history, with the story of the planet recorded in those minerals."
It is hoped that new information from Opportunity and Curiosity will help prepare the way for the human exploration of Earth's planetary neighbour that many scientists believe is inevitable.
Dr Tucker is, no doubt, watching with interest.
To see more about Dr Paulo de Souza's work with the Mars rover watch the following video.
Image courtesy of the ABC
4 July 2017, Edition 185