Enrichment Talk: Man’s Quest to Leave the Planet

On Friday 15th September children, teachers and parents enjoyed an interesting and entertaining talk on “Man’s quest to leave the planet” from Mr Paul Nicholls of Merchiston Castle School. Mr Nicholls started by distributing electronic voting widgets among the audience to capture opinions on interplanetary travel. Did we fancy moving to permanent colonies on other planets, or perhaps only visiting for a holiday, or would we rather stay closely attached to mother earth? Although the precise figures returned by the audience are now rather hazy, possibly due to the welcoming glass of wine offered to the parents, it seemed that most people were happy with the idea of an occasional extra-terrestrial trip, but would rather keep the Earth as their permanent home.
Mr Nicholls then explored the reasons why we might want to develop the technologies to travel long distances among the planets and moons of our solar system and set up colonies. The possibility of mass extinction events, the need to find new sources of minerals and other materials, and the problems of overpopulation were discussed, along with the costs and benefits of interplanetary travel. Mr Nicholls went on to describe what has been achieved so far: the Voyager, Galileo, and Cassini missions over the last 40 years have travelled across our solar system sending back information about the planets and their moons, the lunar and Martian landers have increased our knowledge of our nearest planetary neighbours. The numerous challenges facing interplanetary travel were explored, starting with a demonstration of the relative forces needed to launch a 10 kg mass from planets and moons with different gravitational attractions (helped by Finlay M, Richard T, Jamie L-M and Ottilie B). The typical cost of launching small payloads came as a considerable surprise to both children and parents.
Mr Nicholls went on to describe how the information now available from the space missions about the planets and their moons enables would-be inter-planetary settlers to narrow down their choices. Water has been found on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, and some of Saturn’s moons, which of course would be an essential resource for human explorers. Some planets and moons have magnetic fields, essential to deflect away harmful particles streaming from the sun. An atmosphere was also shown to be high on the list of requirements, as it provides protection from meteors and asteroids that could obliterate life on the surface. The wide range of temperatures found on different planets are another issue facing explorers – Mars was given as an example that can range from “just about OK” to being cold enough at its polar regions to freeze the carbon dioxide out of its thin atmosphere. A sample of frozen carbon dioxide, dry ice, was taken around the audience by Rosie L to enable everyone to take a closer look. The health problems arising from living in a low-gravity environment were also described, including the need to exercise for many hours to maintain muscle strength. A final challenge, the difficulty of communicating across the immense distances between the planets, was vividly illustrated by the interaction with the commander (Robbie G) of a planetary lander at the back of the hall, where each instruction and response took several minutes to execute.
Altogether a fascinating and engaging introduction to our solar system and its science; awarded a rating of 110/100 by Alexandra P! (Huge thanks to Ardvreck parent, Dr Paton, for this report)