The final frontier: Scots space programme awarded almost £4m to develop Mars drill

A Scottish space programme has been awarded almost £4 million to develop a drill to explore the surface of Mars.

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The Space Glasgow research group at the University of Glasgow received the funding to go towards building a drill to extract and contain samples from the surface of the red planet.

It is expected to be built by the summer of 2016 and will be tested on the uninhabited Devon Island in Baffin Bay, Canada, which is described as "one of the most Mars-like places on Earth" by scientists.

Dr Patrick Harkness and Professor Margaret Lucas from the university's engineering school are leading the drilling programme.

Dr Harkness said: "The Martian surface has features that look like dried up riverbeds, suggesting that the planet may have been much wetter in the past. Even today, there may be brine near the surface.

"Samples of the surface rocks would be extremely useful to develop our understanding of how similar Mars might have been to the Earth and how the planets have diverged."

The drill will use high-frequency vibrations to shatter the rock on the surface of the plant rather than drill through it and potentially damage the samples.

Dr Harkness added: "Planetary drilling is difficult because the low gravity makes it difficult to apply the large forces that are normally used to shatter rock on Earth while the need to preserve the samples means that the rock temperature must be kept close to ambient.

"Once we have the samples, they cannot be returned directly to Earth because of the risk - however remote - that they could contain pathogens dangerous to our planet. They must be sealed inside a container that will only be opened in a secure laboratory."

The automated Curiosity rover operated by Nasa is currently exploring the surface of Mars and the space agency reported late last year that it had found evidence of a freshwater lake that may once have supported life on the planet.

The £3.95 million of funding is from the European Commission's Seventh Framework Programme, which aims to boost research and education across Europe.

It will also support Space Glasgow's research into the physics of solar flares - large, bright streaks released by the sun in a build-up of energy.

The research will bring together experts from seven universities to collect and analyse data from satellite and earthbound observations of solar flares.

Dr Lyndsay Fletcher and Dr Nicolas Labrosse from the University of Glasgow's school of physics and astronomy will work on the project.

Dr Fletcher said: "This project will allow us to combine ultra-high detail observation of solar flare events with advanced theoretical and computational modelling to shed light on the way a flare's energy is stored, released and converted into other forms.

"The material of the solar atmosphere, in common with 99% of the visible universe, is an electrified gas, or plasma, carrying a magnetic field.

"By studying energy release and radiation in solar flares we'll be learning more about how astrophysical plasmas work, as well as probing a solar system event that has a direct impact on our planet's environment."

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