In a plane that performs a set of hefty dives, planetary scientists from the Netherlands will study landformation on Mars. The researchers hope to explain how hills and river valleys on Mars were formed. Via elliptic flight patterns, the pilot can simulate gravity equal to that on Mars. "I am going to be completely nauseous, but if it gives me a good dataset, it'll be worth it," quips Maarten Kleinhans of the University of Utrecht.
Earlier, a few billion years ago, Mars and the Earth were notably similar. Now they look completely different. What has happened since that beginning? How did it end up that the Earth is now a fruitful planet crawling with life, while Mars is completely desolate? Has it always been that way? Planetary scientists are researchers that try to reconstruct the story and have no aversion to unorthodox methods.
Therefore Kleinmans and his colleague Sebastiaan de Vet of the University of Amsertam will crawl into the Cessna Citation research plane owned by TU Delft. Their schientific experiments consist of a few hourglasses and a series of spinning cookie tins filled with materials of varying compositions. With the help of video recording, the scientists can record how the material piles up. Kleinhans will use such recordings to look at how that happens in water while De Vet concentrates on dry heaps of rubble. Kleinhans: "It seems like such a simple process, but the influences of, for instance, the form and size of the material and the amount of gravity seems at this point in time to be beyond capture in a simple formula." Insight into this process helps the researchers reconstruct how landscape formations on Mars came to be.
The initiator of the flight campaign is De Vet, whose experiment flew onboard the International Space Station during André Kuipers' spaceflight. " 'Flight-engineer Alexander in 't Veld of the TU-Delft tests the capability of a plane to precisely determine gravity levels, including those of Mars.' My chance was crystal clear to me," he says, "I asked Maarten if he'd like to participate and he was absolutely enthusiastic."
The insights that the scientists hope to receive are valuable to Martian research, but also for applications on Earth. In the Earth's deltas and on the Earth's rubble heaps in the mountains, there are comparable rock avalanches that will also be better understood because of this research. Avalanches can completely cover roads, sometimes even entire towns, and can also break through dams. By performing these studies, researchers hope to better understand the formation, friction and speed of avalanches.
The flights of De Vet and Kleinhans are financed by the Programme for Space Science User Support provided by the Netherlands Space Office (NSO) for the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).