Author Archives: Ainaa Mashrique

University Job Cuts: Will it ever end?

Yesterday, the  University of Manchester announced their plan to axe 171 staff, mostly academic positions in the faculties of arts, languages, biology, medicine and business. This is one of the many job cuts that had taken place in UK universities since 2016. 

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Image: University of Manchester. Image credits: Joshua Poh @ Flickr

According to the University and College Union (UCU), 35 posts in the school of arts, languages and cultures will be cut from a total of 104 whose jobs are at risk. In the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health, 65 academic jobs will be cut from a total of 627 people at risk.

The union claimed that the University of Manchester blamed Brexit for the staff cuts.

Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, told the Guardian: “We see no economic rationale for jobs cuts on such an enormous scale. The University of Manchester is in a strong financial position and we believe it is using recent government policy changes and Brexit as an excuse to make short-term cuts that will cause long-term damage.”

However, the University of Manchester denies the union’s claims that their job cuts were “due to Brexit”, according to the BBC. 

The university told the BBC: “Brexit and exchange rate fluctuations are features of the external environment in which all British universities and other organisations are operating at this present time.”

In an e-mail statement, the university told WNOL the job losses were necessary for it to be a world-leading institution and they would offer voluntary severance wherever possible.

A university spokesperson said: “The University of Manchester has a bold ambition to be a world leading institution, with a reputation based on academic excellence. In order to meet this ambition, we must improve the quality of our research and student experience in some areas and ensure the financial sustainability of the university. Realising this ambition will require a capacity to invest in our strategic priorities.”

The statement said the cuts are necessary to improve the quality of their research and student experience in some areas, and to ensure their future financial sustainability.

More than 12,000 people work at the university, including almost 7,000 academic and research staff.

This is only one of the many university staff cuts occurring nationwide in the past year.

A spokesperson from UCU’s press office told WNOL in a telephone interview: “Job cuts are a complicated issue, there are a lot of different reasons for it. UCU  believes that universities shouldn’t be making job cuts. Rather, they should be making investments towards their staff to make tertiary education in the UK more competitive. The cornerstone of every university is the staff.”

When asked if Brexit is a factor in university job cuts, she said: ” There is some uncertainty to what Brexit would mean, and it’s too early to jump to any conclusions, but there are concerns that it might have some negative effects.”

“We wouldn’t be predicting any future university job cuts, and we hope that universities recognise that the staff is something to invest in and not something to save costs on.”

Despite that, it seems that job cuts in the tertiary education industry is becoming increasingly common.

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Image: University of Sunderland. Image credits: livesonline.sunderland.ac.uk

Today, lecturers and staff at the University of Sunderland have been warned that compulsory job cuts may be required to deal with falling student numbers.

An e-mail from the chief operating officer, Steve Knight and deputy vice-chancellor, Professor Michael Young that was reported by the Sunderland Echo said that falling student numbers “…will inevitably necessitate some reorganisation and restructuring within the faculties during early 2017/18 to ensure we can successfully deliver against our strategic objectives.”

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Image: Plymouth University. Image credits: www.puic.navitas.com 

Just last month, Plymouth University staff reported fears over job cuts. The university confirmed “informal discussions” were being carried out regarding redundancy plans.

An anonymous staff member told Devon Live that the review is “a major cost cutting exercise” and fears the university is aiming to make budget cuts across the entire institution.

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Image: London Metropolitan Graduate Centre. Image credits: www.libeskind.com

Last year, London Metropolitan University had cut 400 jobs and closed two of their three campuses.

The proposed cuts came right after the 93 job losses announced in early 2016.

Initially established as the University of North London in 1992, it originally attracted 28,000 students. By 2016, the number fell to 12,000. The university planned to reduce this number to another 2,000 by 2017.

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Image: University of Westminster. Image credits: studyabroad.arcadia.edu

Additionally, the University of Westminster plans to make huge job cuts due to a decrease in student enrollment, as reported by WNOL last week.

In April, the university management told the trade unions that there will be large-scale redundancies due to falling numbers of undergraduate enrollment. It is expected that student numbers will drop from 13,000 to 10,000 from now until 2021.

Video: Job cuts at the University of Westminster. Video credits: Amelia Walker-Hall & Olivia Herring from the University of Westminster.

The lack of prospective student applications is a common cause for staff layoffs.

According to a UCAS report illustrating student applications for the March 2017 deadline, English applicants dropped from 428940 in 2016 to 408500 in 2017.

In the whole of UK, there had been an approximate 20000 drop in student applications in just one year, from 519,030 in 2016 to 496,010 in 2017.

Applications from EU students had also dropped from 47870 in 2016 to 45140 in 2017.

The Brexit results may possibly be one of the reasons behind the lack of EU applicants. In February, it was found that the number of EU students applying to UK universities fell by 7% since Brexit.

Written evidence had warned the number of prospective EU students choosing to study in the UK might fall as a result of Brexit – this could cost the UK economy more than £690m per year.

Previously, leading academics have warned MPs that Brexit could be the “biggest disaster” in tertiary education, and that leaving the European Union could damage the reputation of British universities.

Higher tuition fees and the rising cost of living may also deter prospective students. In relation to that, Jeremy Corbyn had announced his plan to abolish tuition fees as part of the Labour Party manifesto.

The Gender Neutral Movement

MTV announced that they will replace the male and female categories with “non-gendered” prizes for its movie and TV awards show.

Recently, the organisers of MTV awards have recognised gender- neutrality, and replaced best female and male actors with a gender-neutral “Best Actor”. However, there is ongoing debate on whether or not this is a good idea, as discussed in a previous WNOL article.

The debate about gender neutrality has been going on for years. Various academics have argued that gender identity is a continuum, and not a binary male/female. This depends on a variety of factors, including anatomy, chromosomes, hormones, and feelings.

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Today, a growing number of students are accepting the idea that there should be more than two gender classifications, something that Facebook and dating website, OkCupid have embraced. Last year, Facebook added a tab for “custom” alongside “male” and “female,” with around 50 options, including “agender,” “androgyne,” “pangender” and “trans person,” as well as an option for controlling who can see the customized version.

Many believe that identifying as genderqueer is an opportunity to self-invent, unburdened from social expectations about dress and behavior.

Currently, many transgender students face difficulties involving gender identity, such as the inability to use bathrooms marked “men” or “women” for fear of a confrontation with a confused classmate and being accused of using a stolen student ID in the cafeteria because the name printed on it didn’t match someone’s appearance. 

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Gender- neutral toilet sign. Image by: images.mydoorsign.com

This movement is not just exclusive to students and youth, but a growing number of British children, such as Caleb and Kai are being raised as gender neutral. Their parents Gabriella and Joe Haughton-Malik told The Independent that they describe their children as boys and use male pronouns, but don’t want their lives to be restricted by traditional gender implications.

Joe Houghton-Malik and Gabriella explains: “If they can dress up as pirates and Darth Vader and zombies, why can’t they dress as princesses? It would be a bit hypocritical of me if I let them dress up as someone who marauders over the seven seas, murdering and stealing things but I can’t let them be a princess.”

Gender Neutrality for Awards: Good or Bad?

It seems great that MTV Awards organisers are making the “best actor” award a gender-neutral category, as reported in a previous article. This propagates the idea that gender should be an irrelevant factor when it comes to talent.

However, with gender inequality still a prevalent issue in the entertainment industry, would it actually be more difficult for women especially, to compete for the best actor title with men?

Looking at all existing gender-neutral awards at the Oscars such as best director and best cinematographer, gender inequality is a very common case.

Kathyn Bigelow posing with her awards. She is the only woman so far who has won Best Director. Images by: Getty Images.

Only four female directors have been nominated for the best director award, with Kathryn Bigelow being the only woman to have ever won.

There were no female directors nominated for best director in the 89th Annual Academy Awards — and this is not a very rare phenomenon. Would this be the case for MTV’s best actor category as well?

Animation student, Jude, 22, said that if she was an actress she “would like to compete with males and females”. She told WNOL: “However, there is an issue of the awards being cut in half.”

Is it Time to Go Gender- Neutral?

MTV announced that they will replace the male and female categories with “non-gendered” prizes for its movie and TV awards show.

This means Emma Watson competes with Hugh Jackman and James McAvoy for best actor in a movie.

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Emma Watson nominated for “Best Actor” for her role as Belle in Beauty and the Beast. Image by: http://www.independent.co.uk

This move highlights the debate on whether there is a need to differentiate between male and female performances, which has traditionally only affected acting categories (i.e. not Best Director or Best Cinematographer).

This could be a move we see bigger awards like the Oscars and Golden Globes make in the next few years and follows a similar one by the National Television Awards.

A National Television Awards representative told The Independent:”It felt right for the National Television Awards to make the change…A great performance is great regardless of gender and we think that dropping the male/female division has made the drama performance category more exciting.”

What is gender neutrality?

Gender neutrality also known as gender-neutralism or the gender neutrality movement, is a concept that avoids categorising roles according to people’s sex or gender in policies, language, and other social institutions. The main motivation behind gender neutrality is to avoid potential discrimination, due to conventional social and gender roles.

The ongoing problem with gender in the entertainment industry

Recently, the organisers at the Emmys asked Asia Kate Dillon to choose which category to be considered for. The Billions star- born female- doesn’t identify as male or female.

Dillon chose best supporting actor category, stressing that “actor” is generally seen as a non-gendered word.

However, the organisers say: “anyone can submit under either category for any reason”. This may seem like a perfectly reasonable course of action, but it still dismisses the talented individuals who do not identify with either of the genders. 

Let’s Talk About Drugs

Recently, the Edinburgh Council and the city’s Drug and Alcohol Project received backlash over a mini booklet they published which was aimed to reduce harm associated with drug use. “Start with half a pill of ecstasy, smoke cannabis with low-strength tobacco and wash your nose out after snorting cocaine”.

But why the backlash? The so-called “War on Drugs” hasn’t been very successful. A lot of teenagers and adults still take them no matter the legislation or prohibitions. And it seems like this will forever be the case. The best one could do is to give information on harm reduction all while encouraging people to stay away from significantly harmful, addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine.

Images: 1) Poppy plant, 2) Heroin. Images by: 1) uk.businessinsider.com and 2) www.brandenton.com 

Which is exactly what The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) and the Faculty of Public Health (FPH) advocate. These two major public health bodies controversially called for the decriminalisation of all drug use and possession in the UK. According to them, criminalising drugs leads to greater long-term harm as users would be excluded from employment and education. RSPH chief executive Shirley Cramer told the Telegraph in an article: “The time has come for a new approach, where we recognise that drug use is a health issue, not a criminal justice issue, and that those who misuse drugs are in need of treatment and support, not criminals in need of punishment.”

RSPH also underlined the aspects to harm reduction in their 2016 report titled “Taking a New Line to Drugs”. According to the report,  harm reduction is an approach that attempts to reduce the overall level of harm associated with substance abuse, rather than dismissing substance abuse as something that should be avoided completely. This approach accepts that “…a certain level of use will always remain inevitable among those who are unable or unwilling to stop.”

Muaz (not his real name), 21, has taken LSD six or seven times now. “I’m of the opinion that acid can help a lot with self development,” he said. “You just need to trip right.” According to him, he gets his information from personal experience and friends. It is obvious here that they aren’t a lot of available certified information, because there is still a stigma surrounding drug use. This is partly caused by the criminalisation of the substances.

In Portugal where drug use is not a criminal offence- hence viewed as less of a stigma- problematic users feel more comfortable seeking out help. This could be one of the many benefits of ending drug criminalisation. The current statistics report that drug use in Portugal has declined in 15-24 year olds and deaths due to drug use have fallen significantly, from 80 in 2001 to 16 in 2012.

However, all drugs cause some sort of harm to the body. But as RSPH said in their report: “…drug harm cannot be objectively measured on a single scale – it is multi-faceted, including physical, psychological and social harm, both to the user and to others. Every drug has a different harm profile across these categories.” Of course some drugs are best to stay away from, but other drugs are simply safer to use recreationally- even safer than alcohol and tobacco. RSPH’s report states that alcohol and tobacco have “high levels of harm, both to users and those around them,” and that this is caused by easy access and social acceptability, on top of their legal status. The report states: “At individual and population level, alcohol and tobacco cause greater health and social harm than many of their illegal counterparts.”

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Infographic by: Ainaa Mashrique.

Organisations like rollsafe.org and tripsafe.org provide guidances online for first time users, including supplement recommendations. Here are some ways you could stay safe, if one day you decide to go on a “roll”.

Stay Safe on MDMA

According to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, “In laboratory studies, pure MDMA has been proven sufficiently safe for human consumption when taken a limited number of times in moderate doses.” “Molly” or “Ecstasy” may contain MDMA, but often times it is mixed in with other, very harmful chemicals, like amphetamines.

What should you do?

MDMA Precautions. Video by: Ainaa Mashrique. All images, music and video clips within this video belong to their respective owners.

1) Cool down, or you risk getting a heatstroke, especially if you are in a hot environment. It’s a stimulant, so most likely you’d want to sweat it out on the dance floor. Make sure you take breaks. A standard dose of MDMA raises your body temperature by approximately one degree, and also interferes with your body’s temperature regulation.

2) Stay Hydrated, although very rarely, Ecstasy users drink too much water and die from Hyponatremia, which is caused my low sodium. Combat this by drinking not more than 500ml of water in an hour, and replace some of that water with electrolytes like Gatorade or fruit juices.

3) Test it. Rollsafe.org claims that MDMA purchased online is much likely to be safer than MDMA purchased on the street or in the club. If you take this route, look for guides and resources on websites like Reddit so that you know how to get the safest substances. Also, it would be a good idea to test your drugs. You can purchase a test- kit online.

4) Avoid if: 

  • You have taken MAOIs (Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors), usually prescribed for depression accompanied with anxiety, in the last two weeks
  • Codeine
  • Any more than a few drinks of alcohol

5) Be mindful of dosage. Chances are, you’d feel like you didn’t take enough MDMA, especially if it’s your first time. This is a trap, as you’d risk lethal overdosing if you take more to get the high you were expecting. For many drugs, weight has a high impact on dosage. Weight does not have a high impact on dosage for MDMA. Even if you weigh a lot, avoid going beyond 125mg. The stimulant effect of 100mg will be too high for many people, especially small females. 60-90mg is safer in that case. The trick is to start small. 

6) Take supplements. This may also reduce some unwanted side effects and eliminate neurotoxicity risk. Rollsafe.org has a supplement kit that you can purchase online and instructions on taking them alongside MDMA, for a safer high.

  • Magnesium Glycerinate six hours prior and during the high may reduce jaw tension
  • Some vitamin-C one to three hours prior is proven to reduce neurotoxicity
  • 100mg Na-R-ALA (aplpa-lipoic acid) may reduce MDMA induced neurotoxicity if taken before and four hours after

7) Wait it out. If you enjoy your experience and want to do it again, it’s ideal that you wait at least six weeks to three months.

Stay Safe on LSD

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LSD strips with a cartoon character print. Image by: Psychonaught via Wikimedia Commons.

LSD is an incredibly potent, mood-changing chemical drug. It is manufactured from lysergic acid, which is found in the ergot fungus that grows on rye and other grains.

What should you do?

1) Find a trip sitter. A good friend who wouldn’t mind staying sober to watch over you.

2) Test it. Preferably, don’t get it from dealers. And just like MDMA, an at-home drug purity test would be a good idea.

3) Have a good meal prior. 

4) Be mindful of dosage. Just like MDMA, you should start with a smaller dose.

5) Avoid if you have taken cannabis in the last 24 hours.

6) Get comfortable. Think twice before tripping in public. A safe, comfortable environment is vital.

7) Find some friends. If you’re inexperienced, taking LSD alone may not be the best decision. But two-person sessions aren’t that great either, as there would be some pressure to carry a conversation. Instead, stay in a group of 3- 4 people you are comfortable around. 

8) Wait it out. Did u enjoy your trip? You are advised to wait at least three months before your next one.

LSD could be a mind-altering experience that would benefit you and your sense of self. However, if you take LSD too frequently it can become a disruptive force because of the constant disconnect from reality.

Watch the video below if you’re interested to see some famous figures who have a history with LSD.

LSD and some famous users. Video by: Ainaa Mashrique. Information from: COED.com. This video is in no way intended to disrespect the people mentioned. Frequency of their use is unknown. All images, music and video clips within this video belong to their respective owners.
*Disclaimer: WNOL does not in any way condone drug use. We are not medical professionals. This article should not be taken as expert medical advice. 

Humans on Mars? About Time

This decade has baffled us with even more questions about the mysterious Red Planet. The most important question of them all: Can humans live on Mars?

NASA has discovered valuable resources such as water and ice just below the red surface. This is good news! If water is present, then human pioneers may thrive on the planet. Their robotic “scouts” have shown that Mars’ geological evolution and climate cycles are not very different from Earth’s, and that at one point in time, the planet could have had life-sustaining properties.

Some space organisations have been working on getting human life to planet Mars for more than four decades. What makes the venture to Mars so difficult, that four decades of work is still far from enough? Besides the lack of reliable technology, they haven’t figured out the parameters needed to settle on a planet with different gravitational or magnetic forces. Mars is just unknown territory, so the outcome of actually staying on the red planet would be rather unpredictable. No organisation is ready to risk human lives just yet.

Another reason why getting to Mars is so difficult is the risk of radiation the shuttles and crew would have to face once they’re there. Astronauts on planet Mars are far from the Earth’s magnetic field. The crew and technology will be exposed to high-energy particles, including infrequent, but potentially deadly solar flares and galactic cosmic rays. Dr Simon Foster from Imperial College London told WNOL: “Solar flares or coronal mass ejections that happen around sun spots launch masses of radiation out into space. They are lethal to astronauts.” According to him: “The Earth’s magnetic field protects us and that’s where we get the Aurora. We see the Aurora when one of these things hits the earth…if you’re going to Mars, you don’t have protection from solar flares.”

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Coronal Mass Ejection. Image by: NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO), and the joint ESA/NASA Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), 31st August 2012.

If a human being is exposed to that much radiation, it may adversely affect the immune system, and increase cancer risk. NASA’s Human Research Program is developing methods and technologies to protect, mitigate, and treat the effects of radiation on the crew and their exploration systems.

Here is a breakdown of the most prominent organisations who are working hard to get humans to Mars.

Mars One

The Mars One organisation aims to land the first humans on Mars. Their main goal is to start a human colony on the planet by 2031. Mars One consists of two entities: the not-for-profit Mars One Foundation, and the for-profit company Mars One Ventures. It was founded by Bas Lansdorp from Netherlands, a controversial figure subject to a lot of scepticism in the media, mainly because he has no actual background in the field. The organisation came under fire in October 2014, when Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate students Sydney Do and Andrew Owens released an independent research report on Mars One, which found that their publicised plans are simply not feasible. According to their report, it is likely that Mars One’s current plans would kill its astronauts within the first few months of the mission.

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(From left to right) Sydney Do, Barry Finger, the Mars Society moderator, Andrew Owens, and Bas Lansdorp pose for a photo after a debate for the 18th Annual International Mars Society Convention . Image by: www.theverge.com

Their Timeline

  • 2022: Mars One plans to send a lander with visual communication technology to Mars as a “demonstration mission.” They plan to carry out a “water extraction experiment” to confirm that Martian soil may provide basic human resources.
  • 2024: Their next course of action is launching a communications satellite to orbit the planet. This is for 24/7 Earth-Mars communication, except for when the Sun is between the two planets.
  • 2026: They aim to launch a rover and a trailer to explore Mars’ surface to find the best location for human settlement. By then, they plan to launch a second communications satellite- this time to orbit the Sun- so they would have uninterrupted Earth-Mars communication even when the Sun is in between the two planets.
  • 2029: They plan to launch six cargo missions, which includes a second rover, two living units, two life support units, and a supply unit.
  • 2030: Their rovers would prepare the outpost location for the settlers. Their Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), powered by solar panels, will then be activated. Their goal at this stage is to produce breathable atmosphere and sufficient water before the first human crew starts their journey to Mars.
  • 2031: This is when they plan to send the first human crew to permanently settle on Mars, followed by a second crew in 2033.

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Mars One: A plan for their mission to Mars. Infographic by: Ainaa Mashrique. Powered by: Visme.

Lansdorp called for volunteers for their mission in 2013, and in February 2016 announced his first batch of successful candidates – the Mars 100. A young Dublin academic with a PhD in physics and astrophysics, Joseph Roche, told The Guardian in an article that he was leaving the Mars 100. According to him, the selection process was “laughably inadequate”, done via online forms and Skype.

Despite that, Mars One was still able to receive applications from 202000 potential volunteers. Overseen by Mars One medical director Norbert Kraft, a veteran of the US, Russian, and Japanese space programmes, the candidates were reduced to 1,058. And then, a medical routine conducted by their own GPs brought the numbers to a global 660. And then finally, the chosen Mars 100.

NASA

NASA’s goal is similar to Mars One’s: to send humans to Mars in the 2030s. Their journey is already well under way as their orbiters, landers, and rovers have been exploring the planet for decades. The Curiosity rover was used to gather radiation data to protect future astronauts, and the upcoming Mars 2020 rover will attempt to uncover Martian resources, including oxygen.

NASA also shares their goal of finding a way for humans to settle safely beyond Earth. With a growing number of international and commercial partners who realise the economic potential of strengthening America’s leadership on Earth and in space, their goals seem achievable, but very difficult.

NASA’s  journey to Mars is divided into three phases. Each subsequent phase crosses a new threshold of challenges as humans move farther from Earth.

Click here for a summary infographic (Infographic by: Ainaa Mashrique. Information from: www.nasa.gov)

Their Timeline

Earth Reliantnow until mid-2020s

  • This phase consists of International Space Station (ISS) operation through 2024, where there would be commercial development in low-earth orbit technology before moving onto deep space systems; customers may pay to go onboard the ISS.
  • One of their goals at this stage is to study life support and human health stabilisation while in deep space.
  • Research would be carried out aboard the ISS, as the orbiting laboratory would act as a testing ground for the technologies and communication interfaces required for deep space missions involving human crew.
  • On the other hand, astronauts will learn about living and working in deep space for long durations.

Proving Ground2018 until 2030

  •  NASA would conduct regular crewed missions and spacewalks in cis-lunar space (the space around the Moon), by using the knowledge and technology previously acquired during phase one.
  • This phase would ideally verify deep space habitation.
  • NASA plans to conduct a yearlong mission to prepare for their mission to Mars.
  • NASA also aspires to integrate human and robotic operations by redirecting and sampling an asteroid boulder into cis-lunar orbit.
  • Astronauts on the ISS during the previous phase would be hours away from Earth, but the proving ground is days away. This is one step closer to an actual Mars mission, which will be months away from the Earth.
  • NASA plans to launch their powerful new rocket, the Space Launch System, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission will carry the Orion spacecraft (without astronauts first) thousands of miles beyond the moon for approximately three weeks.
  • After that, astronauts would embark on a similar mission on board the Orion, traveling farther than humans have ever travelled before.

Earth Independent2030s and beyond

  • The final phase before the manned mission to Mars.
  • With knowledge gathered during the previous two phases, it aims to prepare astronauts and technology for the upcoming mission to Mars.
  • Science missions during this time will be in the final stages.
  • NASA plans to demonstrate entry, descent, and landing (EDL) techniques that they plan to employ during the actual Mars mission.
  • They would also demonstrate in-situ resource utilisation.
  • They plan to send humans to low-Mars orbit or to orbit one of the Martian moons by the early 2030s.
  • NASA’s main goal at this stage is to send humans to the Martian surface.
  • At the moment, NASA is already looking at potential outposts on Mars that would propel scientific research and provide the most resources.

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NASA’s Journey to Mars. Image by: www.nasa.gov

Space-X

Space X is a private company founded by Elon Musk that builds rockets and spacecraft. With a 1.6 billion USD contract with NASA, the company is the first private company that has successfully built spacecraft for cargo resupplies at NASA’s International Space Station, previously a feat only achieved by the US government. The founder Elon Musk shares the dream of a manned mission to Mars, and says in a keynote speech in Mexico that he may be able to accomplish this in six years by upgrading one of his existing spacecraft called the Falcon-9.

His current plan to get to Mars involves a multi-stage launch and transport system- including a reusable booster- which will be a bigger version of their existing and tested Falcon 9 spacecraft. The booster, and an “interplanetary module” could potentially carry 100 passengers. Elon Musk’s ongoing feat to develop reusable rockets would also dramatically cut costs needed for deep space missions. He is one step closer as Space X had successfully launched and landed the first used rocket on 30th March 2017.

He also proposed using similar modules- also launched using reusable boosters- in the Earth’s orbit to refuel the interplanetary craft, so it could be used for multiple trips. This includes trips to other parts of the solar system.

Space-X spacecraft. Images by: www.spacex.com.

A Physicist’s Perspective

Extra-terrestrial life has taken centre stage in the 21st Century. It has been the subject of scepticism and scrutiny for decades. 

Recently, WNOL posted an article about NASA’s recent groundbreaking discovery of seven new planets, which sparked more questions about the possibility of alien life and habitable planets aside from earth.

An Intro to the Controversy of Alien Life. Video by: Ainaa Mashrique. All images, music and video clips within this video belong to their respective owners.

To answer some of these mind-boggling questions, WNOL spoke to Dr Simon Foster, a physicist at Imperial College London, who specialises in solar physics and has a PhD from University of Southampton. He was one of the researchers who took part in the BBC’s 30-minute programme “How to Put a Human on Mars”, which discussed the elements of an actual mission to Mars.

Recently, he talked to WNOL about a variety of topics, from extra-terrestrial life and its common misconceptions, to intergalactic travel and sci-fi movies. Read more to satisfy your inner sci-fi geek.

1) How did you first get into physics?

I was always interested in science and space science when I was a child. Weirdly, my science idol is a lady called Helen Sharman, who was the first Briton in space. I was probably five or six when she launched to the space station. I struggled to read, so I liked pictures in astronomy and things like that and coupled with Helen Sharman going into space, that basically made me want to be an astronomer or an astronaut, I’m actually friends with her now, so that’s really bizarre. I ended up studying space science and physics at the university of Southampton and I somehow ended up doing a PhD in solar physics, looking at solar changes and global warming.

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Helen Sharman, the first Briton to go to space. Image by: AMSAT-UK.

2) What exactly do you mean by “solar changes in global warming”?

It is how the sun’s energy changes, because if you want to understand global warming, we need to understand all the drivers behind the earth’s climate. We didn’t really know what the sun did; we only launched a satellite to study the sun, I believe in 1978. Before that, we had no real records or no idea what the sun’s energy output is.

3) You did a project called “How to Put a Human on Mars”. What was that like for you?

That was really interesting. They brought a team together: engineers, biologists, space scientists, which I am one of. The idea was, in a very basic way: “How could we get human beings to Mars?” And my area was to look at the problems with radiation in space. There are things called the solar flare, or coronal mass ejections. These happen around sunspots, and they’re huge explosions. They launch masses of radiation out into space. They are lethal to astronauts and one very narrowly missed them. If it had hit the lunar capsule – it was like a ball of radiation, and it was so dangerous- it would’ve killed them instantly and they didn’t know about this. If you’re going to Mars, you don’t have protection from radiation. The really interesting thing was that there was no engineering way of overcoming or protecting astronauts against these coronal mass ejections. That’s the shocking thing, I thought there was some way of doing it but there is none.

Tim Willcox interviews Dr Simon Foster about the project “How to Put a Human on Mars”. Video by: BBC News Channel.

4) When you said it takes a couple weeks to get to the moon, how long do you think it would take before we could travel to different galaxies?

Wow! It’s going to take human beings about nine months to a year to get to Mars at the moment. That would take several thousand years just to get to our nearest, what we believe could be, habitable planet. We would need to find a way around that. I think freezing human beings would be a way, they’ve actually found a way of defrosting human organs, so I think it could be a situation where we put human beings in suspended animation for thousands of years. The problem is, to get up to the speed of light, you would have to be accelerating at a huge amount. The forces on the body would basically make it impossible. So, I believe that you would send human beings out and never see them again. That would be the way it works.

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Hubble Telescope shot of 10000 galaxies. Image by: www.nasa.gov .

5) What are light years?

The light we see from these stars. Suppose there’s a star 70 light years away, that light we’re seeing is 70 years old. We’re looking at planets there, but those planets might not even exist anymore, there might have been some catastrophe. What’s interesting is, those planets are getting information from the earth from 70 years ago, and so if in any case there are civilisations, what they’re seeing about the earth is wars. If you turn the tables, and you were getting signals from an alien civilisation (alien civilisation being us humans), and they were killing each other on an industrial scale happily, would you really want to be in contact with them? We’re sending out human history through space for them to pick up, and we don’t look like a particularly pleasant group of people. It might be very grimly, but there might be aliens, and they would really not want to contact us. They don’t want anything to do with us, it could be.

6) Would you say you believe in aliens then?

I believe that there are microbes. I don’t see that this is in any way controversial, even though we haven’t found it. I don’t think it’s going to be anything like Star Trek, with a race of beings that are five feet tall, two arms, two legs, pointy ears, or funny eyebrows. Maybe you would get a civilisation that would crop up and for two or three thousand years, it would be intelligently active. They would be able to produce radio signals, leave its own planet, and then there would be some catastrophe and it would probably wipe itself out. And what you will see, if you see a screen as a map of the universe, or of the galaxy, you would see civilisations flashing up and disappearing. And the chances of two flashing up at exactly the same time, seeing that the universe is billions of years old, are next to impossible. So maybe, we could in the future travel to our nearest star systems and find ruins. But I definitely do believe in microbial life.

7) Would you say that how media portrays aliens with UFOs and E.T, is that just stereotyping or speculation?

I think it’s a good story. Obviously a boring story about “there may very well be microbial life” doesn’t go down that well compared to if you say “there are aliens”. I personally believe a lot of the time, UFOs are simply government test aircraft and it’s easier to hide them than it is to admit it. In the 80s and 90s a lot of UFOs are triangular shaped. A few years later, the Stealth Bomber and the Stealth Fighter came out. I believe it’s just a good cover-up. Governments don’t want their top secret projects to be discussed or photographed- dismissing them as UFOs. It diverts attention. If we are saying UFOs are aliens, again, the aliens would have to overcome the same issues human beings would have to overcome going to another star system. As far as we are aware, it could take thousands of years.

Images: 1) A Stealth Bomber or Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, 2) A typical UFO craft. Images by: 1) Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III for the United States Airforce via Wikimedia Commons 2)  TheObjectReport.com.

8)  What if aliens had the technology to overcome the distance?

They could, but my view is that if you were coming here wouldn’t you just speak to the people. If you were taking that long to get here, would you just hover around? You would actually get down. If their technology was so great, they have nothing to fear from us. That’s the way I see it.

9) If we do discover microbial life, what then?

This is a really interesting question because about two years ago, I was asked to comment on a story that NASA was putting out and they had discovered or thought they had discovered the signature of microbes on Mars, and they’re called methanogens. These are the same bacteria that live in your stomach and produce methane gas, and they had found methane gas being made on the surface of Mars. They haven’t found bacteria, but they had started to find traces of it. Most would ask, “how does that benefit me?”, and that’s a big thing in science. Does it benefit us? That would be the bigger thing to get across to people, not just that alien life exists but why it is important. I think that when we go to Mars, it’s incredibly important to have biological awareness, so that we don’t contaminate ourselves bringing material back. I think that’s what we really need to know.

10) What would you say to sceptics who don’t believe in any sort of alien life to change their mind?

I believe in evolution, I don’t even call it a theory of evolution, it’s a fact of evolution. I’m religious myself, but I compartmentalise the two things. You can see evolution happening with bacteria, that’s why we have antibiotic-resistant microbes. Say there’s a one in a billion chance for us to discover microbial life, there are billions upon billions of stars in the galaxy. So if you say it’s a one in a billion chance, that’s still quite probable. It’s remarkably easy to believe that there would be microbial life.

11) NASA announced seven new planets recently, what are your thoughts on this?

It’s very interesting. I think what is more interesting is we originally thought there was only one planet that could hold life in the entire universe. Now news of new planets are cropping up with- I wouldn’t say alarming regularity- but it seems that everywhere we look, there is a planet that has the potential to house life, its not that uncommon. It could well be the normality of the galaxy, that there would be planets with water and atmosphere, possibly with a magnetic field. It doesn’t look like it’s that rare.

12) Human beings have a fascination to explore, isn’t this the reason why the idea of going to Mars is appealing?

Now I wouldn’t say we’ve exhausted planet earth in terms of exploration, but it does seem to be that space is the next place to go to. I bet that if you said tomorrow: “We’re launching a mission to this planet, and we’re going to have to freeze you and you’re not going to be there for a thousand years,” you would find enough people to participate in the first hour. To give you an idea about this, when human beings first landed on the moon, the Russian and American space agency both had the same idea. It’s basically nicknamed the “fat slob mission”. The idea is that we can send a human being to Mars but we don’t know how to get them back again and what we’ll do is we land them on Mars and keep sending them food, drink, and books until we work out how to get them back. That mission instantly had more than enough people; astronauts, human beings just came forward. It was nicknamed “the fat slob mission” because that’s what you would be; you’d be sitting in a room and that would be your life. And basically you’d be imprisoned on another planet, but the glory of being the first person to set foot on Mars was enough that it had so many people stepping forward to do it.

13) OK let’s end the interview with a light-hearted question: What’s your favourite sci-fi movie or TV show?

I really like Buck Rogers, the 1980s or 1970s one. It’s terrible, that’s why I like watching it. It has really interesting architecture. I do like Star Trek, of course, but I also really like Buck Rogers, I just like the visuals in it.

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