ExoMars landing site 2: This time it’s geological

This post was contributed by Dr Peter Grindrod, of Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Read the first post from this series. It was originally published on his personal blog.

It’s been nine months since the last workshop about where the next rover will land on Mars. During that time there have been some fantastic space firsts, including the European Space Agency landing on a comet, and NASA testing a spacecraft that will take humans back into deep space.

But we’ve always kept one eye on Mars. Over the summer the proposed eight landing sites for the ExoMars rover were officially reduced to four. We were really pleased that our two sites got through, but we’ve now got a lot of work ahead of us.

Last week we were in Italy to discuss the detailed geology of the final four landing sites. With ExoMars trying to find life on Mars, we have to decide which one place offers the best chance of finding it. Such a tough call meant it was a fascinating meeting, as each site offers its own advantages and challenges.

The final four sites are Mawrth Valles, Oxia Planum, Hypanis Valles and Aram Dorsum. Despite all four being in the same region of the planet, they show a diversity that you’d expect from an overall area the size of Western Europe.

Regional context of the final four landing sites for the ExoMars rover. Black regions show elevations that are too high for the rover to land in. (Image credit: THEMIS/MOLA/Peter Grindrod)

Regional context of the final four landing sites for the ExoMars rover. Black regions show elevations that are too high for the rover to land in. (Image credit: THEMIS/MOLA/Peter Grindrod)

Mawrth Vallis, named after the Welsh name for Mars, is a candidate as strong as its namesake’s rugby team. Mawrth made it through to the final four choices for the Curiosity rover, due to its thick sequence of clay minerals – a sure sign of past water that’s also probably neutral in pH (and presumably good for life).

Oxia Planum is about 400km from Mawrth, and shows similar thick, clay layers, but with the added bonus of a channel that may have emptied into a shallow lake. This means we can be even surer of water, which we think is a prerequisite for life.

The landing site at Hypanis Valles is actually at the end of the channel of the same name, and most likely represents ancient delta deposits. Here we think sediments, and hopefully life, were laid down in a low energy environment. This site is good because it might concentrate the evidence for life, thus increasing our chances of finding it.

And finally Aram Dorsum, which was such an unknown before the last meeting it actually had a different name. At the time there was no feature nearby that we could use to name our landing site. So in the end we had to officially apply to name the site. Despite my attempts to name it after the River Irwell, whose tiny tributary flowed through my village when I was growing up, it was deemed to be a positive relief feature and thus needed a different name. So Aram Dorsum it is.

That positive relief at Aram is something that isn’t immediately familiar, although there are quite a few similar features on Earth. It’s basically an inverted river system, where water carves a channel, deposits sediments that then become cemented, while everything outside is eroded away by billions of years of erosion. After this you’re left with a river system, albeit with positive relief. So again, water was flowing through this region, probably about 3.8 to 4 billion years ago, a time when life was probably just getting started on Earth, and possibly Mars.

Now it’s a matter of figuring out the complicated history of what has followed at all sites since the water disappeared, and what it means for the possible evidence of life. Can rocks rich in fossilised microbes survive the bombardment from meteorites? Do these meteorite impacts actually make it easier to get at the deeper rocks, which could have been warmer and wetter?

So part of what we did last week was to assess the complex histories at each site, discuss the likely habitability of the environments we think were around when the features formed, and ultimately what it all means for life.

The other part was to listen to the safety assessments carried out so far on the sites. All the four sites met the global engineering constraints, but local factors such as small, but steep slopes, or the presence of too many sand dunes, increase the risk when it comes to landing on Mars.

So although the science might be great, we’ve got to hope that there are no engineering show-stoppers at this stage. As the Philae lander showed, landing on another planetary body is difficult. So I’m happy to keep figuring out the science of where we’ll go, while the engineers work out how to get there in one piece.

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Parenting by older mothers brings benefits to children

This post was contributed by Professor Jacqueline Barnes, Department of Psychological Sciences.

CroppedWhile increasing maternal age, especially for women from their mid to late 30s onwards, is linked to the likelihood of more medical risks for mother and infant, recently published  research by my team at Birkbeck, with colleagues at UCL, indicate that this change to older motherhood could lead nationally to better child health and development, and to fewer parenting problems. The studies, based on two large samples – the Millennium Cohort Study and the National Evaluation of Sure Start – found that:

  • The risk of children having unintentional injuries requiring medical attention or being admitted to hospital both declined with increasing maternal age. For example, at three years the risk of unintentional injuries declined from 36.6% for mothers aged 20 to 28.6% for mothers aged 40 and hospital admissions declined, respectively, from 27.1% to 21.6%.
  • The rate of complete immunisations by three years of age increased with maternal age up to 27 years.
  • Child Language development at ages three and four years was associated with improvements with increasing maternal age, with scores for children of mothers aged 20 being lower than those of children of mothers aged 40 by 0.21 to 0.22 standard deviations.
  • Increasing maternal age was associated with fewer socio-emotional problems. Children of teenage mothers had more difficulties than children of mothers aged 40 (difference 0.28 SD at age 3 and 0.16 SD at age 5).
  • Reported parent/child conflict decreased as maternal age increased.
  • The use of harsh discipline such as smacking was low for teenage mothers and highest in the mid-twenties, after which it declined.
  • Positive and responsive parenting generally increased with maternal age up to about age 40 after which it plateaued.
  • The least home chaos and the most stimulating home environments were identified for mothers in their early 30s.

This research, funded by the Wellcome Trust, was initiated in the knowledge that maternal age was increasing in the UK. It has demonstrated that, while there are many medical reasons why close attention should be given to the physical well-being of older mothers and their infants both during pregnancy and immediately after birth, an increase in older motherhood should not necessarily be a cause for concern in relation to subsequent parenting. Indeed, it is likely that older mothers will be preparing their children well for preschool and school experiences in a warm and responsive home environment. The findings of fewer unintentional injuries with increasing maternal age and fewer child socio-emotional problems may suggest that women with more life experiences may be able to draw upon a wider range of support that can help to reduce some of the stress of parenting. These studies are important for any families undertaking IVF or other forms of assisted conception, who are on average older than other first-time parents, and for women who have delayed motherhood, for whatever reasons.

This study has received media attention:

For more information see:

  • Sutcliffe, A.G., Barnes, J. Belsky, J., Gardiner, J., Melhuish, E.  (2012). Health of children born to older mothers in the UK. BMJ, 345:e5116 doi:10.1136/bmj.e5116
  • Barnes, J., Gardiner, J., Sutcliffe, A.G., Melhuish, E. (2014).  The parenting of young children by older mothers in the United Kingdom.  European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 11(4), 397-419.
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What the Thunder Said: theatre-based intervention for children who have witnessed violent events

Natasha KirkhamThis post was contributed by Dr Natasha Kirkham from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences.

In 2012, I took part in a research project looking into children’s reaction to witnessing violent events. Working with a playwright from Theatre Centre, I conducted workshops in 10 primary schools, located in areas with high levels of violence. The workshops fed into the writing of a new play, which then toured primary schools across the UK. We handed out questionnaires to the children and their teachers about  responses to and understanding of violent behaviour and bullying before and after seeing the play.

Until now, my research has been solidly experimental, investigating theories on attention and learning. This project opened my eyes to just how important it is for developmental scientists to get out of the lab and into the field, to shake up their methods, and to listen to individual children.  And to remind ourselves that development does not happen in a vacuum. These children were extraordinary – tough, interesting, heart-breaking, and funny – and all of them had thoughtful, strong opinions about the very real bullying in their environments. I learned about ‘circle of friends’ (peer-groups assigned to befriend and look out for each other), I learned about the role of humour in the lives of these children (both appropriate and inappropriate), and I learned how easily these children shift between reality and fantasy (seamlessly moving from laughing about parents in prison to discussing Xbox characters). Importantly, I learned that with bullying, ‘walking away’ does not always work.

This experience was personally and professionally cathartic for me, offering new insights into modern-day parenting, coping strategies (for children and teachers), and developmental resilience. Ultimately, it proved to me that a lot of our ideas about how to deal with bullying need to be re-worked.

We hope that the pre and post play surveys will show a significant shift in people’s perspective on community violence and the effects of bullying, and provide some evidence for theatre-based intervention in areas rife with violence and trouble.

Dr Kirkham’s review of her experience with this project was originally published in The Psychologist magazine.

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Why on earth study babies to get a better understanding of Alzheimer’s dementia in adults?

Annette 400 x 400This post was contributed by Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith, who will be delivering a paper on this topic at the International Conference on Infant Studies, which is taking place in Berlin from 3-5 July.

Together with my team at the Centre for Brain & Cognitive Development at Birkbeck, I am studying babies with Down syndrome to identify risk and protective factors for Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

Why babies, when it’s an adult disease?  And why Down syndrome?

During my Invited Address to the International Conference on Infant Studies (ICIS) in Berlin I will argue that it is vital to trace adult outcomes back to their origins in infancy if we are to understand the developmental trajectory of dementia.

Interestingly, Down syndrome lends itself well to such research because one of the genes implicated in the brain pathology of Alzheimer’s in adults, the APP gene, is situated on chromosome 21, so it is over-expressed in Down syndrome from the very start of development because babies with Down syndrome have three copies instead of two copies of the APP gene. All individuals with Down syndrome ultimately get the amyloid-beta plaques typical of Alzheimer’s brain pathology, yet not all of them get dementia in adulthood.  Why?  What protects some and what makes others vulnerable?

The fascinating challenge is to understand how combinations of effects at the genetic, cellular, neural, cognitive, behavioural and environmental levels contribute to these individual differences over developmental time. My talk will explain how the study of babies with Down syndrome may yield clues to protective and risk factors for Alzheimer’s.

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Other posts by Professor Karmiloff-Smith:

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