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Soon, Ladakh will have a Mars research and space exploration station

Among other things, this space exploration training site will support scientists and students in areas like space biology research, and earth and climate sciences

Tso-Kar in Ladakh is close to different types of Mars expedition sites, from hot springs, glaciers and permafrost to saline lakes. (Photo credit: iStock)

The scenic plains and lakes of Ladakh hide a valuable astrobiological secret. The high altitudes and extreme environments in the region make it a potentially useful site for off-earth analogue and astrobiology research. The conditions in these parts are almost Mars-like.

Now researchers from the Centre of Excellence in Astrobiology, Amity University, Mumbai, are working on setting up a Mars research station in the Tso-Kar region by June-July 2021. Among other things, this space exploration training camp is being planned to support scientists and students in areas like space biology research and earth and climate sciences.

“You can think of it as a science camp that will be active from June to the end of September each year, starting 2021. There will be a team of researchers who will be going to Tso-Kar... It’s a high-altitude wetland region which allows us to look at different features that are similar to what would have existed on early Mars,” says Siddharth Pandey, head of the Centre of Excellence in Astrobiology at Amity University, Mumbai.

Pandey explains how the cold, high-altitude environment in Ladakh is similar to what existed on ancient Mars two billion years ago. The team also conducted a full analysis of 10 sites in the region before finalising Tso-Kar. “Tso-Kar is actually close to different types of Mars expedition sites, all within the distance of a few hours. These are hot springs, glaciers, permafrost and saline lakes. It’s also not too close to the international border. Logistically, we are close to the Leh-Manali highway. These factors are important,” adds Pandey.

A view from the 'Kimberley' formation on Mars taken by Nasa's Curiosity rover. The strata in the foreground dip towards the base of Mount Sharp, indicating flow of water toward a basin that existed before the larger bulk of the mountain formed. (Credits: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
A view from the 'Kimberley' formation on Mars taken by Nasa's Curiosity rover. The strata in the foreground dip towards the base of Mount Sharp, indicating flow of water toward a basin that existed before the larger bulk of the mountain formed. (Credits: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The Center is aiming to announce its programme packages, which include fee and other participation details, in January 2021. This will help participants plan their duration of stay in Ladakh and the different research activities they plan to undertake at the site. So far, Pandey says more than 200 students have already registered. Be it a space enthusiast, researchers, or budding students, everyone will have the choice to build and implement their own list of activities that they wish to undertake. This could include learning more about the Earth's and Mars’ natural history during on-site research, climate change, and future technologies needed for Mars exploration. The initiative is also supported by organisations like Mars Society Australia, Blue Marble Space Institute of Science and others.

Every group will also be accompanied by a chief earth scientist to carry out their own set of research or participate in an experiment or activity designed by the team. “We will be announcing some experiments that we have in mind. For example, measuring the water temperature and pH levels from different points, looking at the soil chemistry etc... There will be at least two levels of complexities: basic sciences and advanced sciences, depending on the training and education of the participants,” says Pandey.

The covid-19 pandemic has, obviously, affected the timeline and requisite budgets for the plan, but Pandey says the aim is to have the station up and functioning by July 2021. “The eventual goal is to have it open for 12 months. We plan on establishing a research station—that's what we are working towards," he adds. "Ideally, the station would have been up this year. But there are a lot of delays because of the pandemic. Regardless, these activities will still take place (starting June 2021) and there will be a series of camps set up at the site."

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