Up for a challenge

UK students to research the effect of a Martian atmosphere on everyday objects

Thales Group - MARSBalloon Launch

At an altitude of 30 Km the atmosphere of Earth bears a striking similarity to the ground level conditions on Mars. The air pressure drops to 100th of that found at sea level, radiation levels rise dramatically and the temperature plummets to -50˚C. It is…challenging.

Yet if our ambition to colonise Mars is to be realised then we must first gain a solid understanding of this hostile and unforgiving environment. And that’s the thinking behind MARSBalloon, a school science project taking place this summer.

MARSBalloon – this year’s iteration of a longstanding programme run by Thales Alenia Space - is inviting primary and secondary schools in the UK to take part in a series of important scientific experiments. The aim is to test the effects of a Mars-like atmosphere on everyday objects and materials.

100 high-altitude experiments

In June 2018 a high-altitude balloon will hoist 100 school experiments deep into the stratosphere. Each experiment takes the form of an everyday object – a piece of apple, or a squeeze of toothpaste, or even, in one rather more exotic case, a sheep’s eyeball -  that’s encapsulated in a plastic toy container from a Kinder™ egg, the popular chocolate treat.


Thales Group - MARSBalloon 140 mins

When the balloon reaches its target height it will burst, and its payload of experiment capsules will parachute to the ground. Tracking technology will allow the parachute and capsules to be located and recovered by a ground team.

Once recovered, each experiment will be returned to the originating school, where students will carefully compare the contents to a control specimen, looking for any changes. Their findings will be added to a report which will be published on the web.

Although it’s meant to be fun, there is nothing trivial here. This is serious stuff. Thales Alenia Space’s challenge tasks students with performing real scientific research for real scientific reasons.

“Every scrap of information that we can get from experiments like these brings the world one step closer to putting humans on Mars,” said Space Systems Engineer Chris Hanbury-Williams.

Meeting the challenges of tomorrow

We all rely on space technology for communications, navigation and Earth observation. It gives us the services and information we need for our phones, satnavs, TV, weather forecasting, environmental monitoring, development of the third world and the detection of underground water and mineral sources.

It is small wonder, then, that the UK government has set a goal of quadrupling the size of the space industry by 2030, an area that already has a year-on-year growth that’s five times great than the wider economy. But benefits of programmes such as MARSBalloon aren’t just limited to space.


Thales Group - MARSBalloon Landing

Programmes such as MARSBalloon are also invaluable for engaging students with rigorous scientific thinking and processes – the skills needed to compete in a high-tech world.

“Now more than ever we need to encourage and nurture an interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – the so-called STEM subjects. They are essential for our future,” said Hanbury-Williams. “And with projects like MARSBalloon, we can do that and have some fun at the same time.”

You can learn more about MARSBalloon here.