Abbie Hutty was Lead Spacecraft Structures Engineer, ExoMars Rover Vehicle, and is now responsible for managing supplier operations for different builds of the ExoMars Rover.
What is the latest evidence, if any, of life forms on Mars?
content_lemon, Boutcher Primary School
Hi Content_lemon! We have come a long way in our understanding of life since the first missions sent back images of Mars’ dusty, desert surface. Then we were hoping to see cities, or canals, or other signs of intelligent life – and when we didn’t, we assumed there was no life at all. Since then we have found life on Earth in lots of places with very extreme conditions that we never expected life to be able to survive in, and that has made us re-think whether life could exist in some parts of Mars.
We have sent lots of missions to Mars, but none that can detect life with absolute certainty- for a start scientists haven’t really all agreed on what evidence you would need to find that they would ALL agree was life. The most recent things that we have found that we think are exciting are that there is plenty of water on Mars, all over the place, which we weren’t sure about for a long time, and then more recently, we have seen signs that some of this water might be liquid for some or all of the year, where before we thought it would all be deeply frozen. This means that is life form there rely on water, they are more likely to be able to get it! Maybe they could then hibernate over winter like some forms of life do here on Earth.
Another thing that we have seen is Methane. Methane is a gas that on Earth is only really produced by two things – volcanoes and living things. We don’t think there are any active volcanoes on Mars, which has made some scientists wonder if the methane is being produced by living things.
Our mission, ExoMars, will have the most advanced set of life-detecting instruments yet on board, so we can look for various different things that different scientists think would indicate life. If we get a sample that passes several of these tests, then it will be our strongest evidence yet for life outside of Earth.
Do you think Mars is suitable for humankind?
precious_heart, Michael Faraday School
No! Mars is a horrible planet! It is freezing cold, blasted with deadly radiation and has no atmosphere to breathe. If humans went there, they would have to live deep in caves or underground to protect themselves from the radiation, and even so it might make them very ill. They could never go outside again without wearing a spacesuit, so they would never feel the sun on their skin or the wind. I think it would be awful! It is also hugely expensive both in terms of money and products- things like fuel – to get humans off of Earth and all the way to Mars. Even in the very best possible circumstances we could only send a few humans – definitely not cities full let alone countries full- so all the rest of us would still be on Earth. That’s why it’s so important that we look after this planet. Some people imagine Mars like a backup for if we ruin this planet but it’s not like that at all – and the Earth would have to be so, so bad before it was worse than Mars is to start with, that we’re much better off focussing our efforts on keeping this planet as healthy as possible.
Mars is a horrible planet! It is freezing cold, blasted with deadly radiation and has no atmosphere to breathe. If humans went there, they would have to live deep in caves or underground to protect themselves from the radiation, and even so it might make them very ill.Abbie Hutty
Do you think one day it will be possible to create advanced AI Robots to terraform Mars for us humans?
creative_sparrow, The Ruth Gorse Academy
I try to stay open-minded about things like this, but at the moment I think terraforming the whole planet will stay in the realms of science fiction unless we have some huge breakthroughs in energy production and find ways of getting huge amounts of resources across huge distances of space. To change the whole planet would take so much STUFF being taken there that it would be like adding a whole extra small planet’s worth of minerals and resources to what is already there. I think it’s much more likely that we would start with a small base, like a pod, that we could put the right atmosphere inside to allow humans to breathe, and get enough healthy soil or nutrients inside to grow crops, and to keep animals and humans alive, and then gradually expand that outwards. I think it’s very unlikely that we would ever be able to do that on the scale of the whole planet, though.
I try to stay open-minded about things like this, but at the moment I think terraforming the whole planet will stay in the realms of science fiction unless we have some huge breakthroughs in energy production and find ways of getting huge amounts of resources across huge distances of space.Abbie Hutty
How did it feel to help make the ExoMars Rover?
congenial_shark, Preston Manor School
Mostly, I just feel very proud to have been part of a team doing such a daring and cutting edge thing. It is really nice to work alongside friends on a project that you are all very passionate about, and very excited by, and have this be your real job! Some of my favourite moments have been the first time I have seen the actual parts that I helped design once they have been made. I get to look at them and think “one that was just an idea in my head, and then we all worked on it, and made sure it worked, and perfected it, and got it built, and now here it is, real-life and ready to go to another planet!” that’s an amazing feeling. Another thing I really enjoy is having to solve challenges that nobody has solved before. Often there are lots of different things that all have to work at the same time, and so you have to think very creatively to make sure that the thing you are designing meets all of the different requirements at once.
What degree did you get? And was it particularly hard to get into an engineering career as a woman?
steady_harmonica – Highdown School
I got a Mechanical Engineering Degree. I don’t think it was particularly difficult to get into the career as a woman – if anything it was helpful as if there was a group of people being interviewed, or at an assessment day, and most of them all look similar, and then there are not many people like me, then that instantly makes me more memorable to the people doing the interviewing. As long as you are good at what you do, (as that means you are remembered for good reasons) then being memorable can be an asset. People now realise that diverse teams make better decisions and that they are often more creative and productive, so they are happy to recruit people from all backgrounds, genders, etc. It is definitely getting more diverse in our sector, and everyone recognises that that is a very good thing!