Namibian to fly a helicopter on Mars - News - Gondwana Collection


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Namibian to fly a helicopter on Mars

Avatar of inke inke - 04. June 2018 - Discover Namibia

Pupils from eleven Windhoek schools had gathered in the hall of Academia Highschool to listen to Dr Jakob van Zyl, Director for Solar System Exploration at NASA in the USA. The Outjo-born scientist and engineer wants to inspire young people to study engineering.

Dirk Heinrich

Namibian-born Dr Jakob van Zyl is the Director for Solar System Exploration at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) in the United States of America. He is currently in Namibia and has given inspirational presentations to learners of more than 40 schools about his career and highlighting NASA’s plans to send a helicopter to Mars in 2020. Dr van Zyl arrived in Namibia on 29 May, and spent almost a week in the country, before making his way back to the USA. During his time here, he also paid a courtesy visit to President Hage Geingob and gave a public lecture at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST).

It is hoped that Dr van Zyl’s presentations at various schools in the Khomas Region will increase the interest in the field of science and technology. Teachers said that learners had googled NASA´s webpage to find out more about van Zyl´s Mars projects and had prepared various questions prior to his visit. 

During the public lecture at NUST, students told Dr van Zyl that he had inspired them to study engineering and that they hoped to be able to one day develop satellites and do research in space.

During question time, Dr van Zyl had to answer many questions because of the huge interest.

Japie van Zyl, as he is fondly known in Namibia, believes that there might be other life in the universe, although possibly not as intelligent as that on Earth. His hypothesis is based on the fact that water has been found on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, as well as on Mars. 

The Mars 2020 mission is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. Mars has been previously been explored by NASA, in the form of small rovers which drove on the surface of the planet. The 2020 mission is the first time that airborne exploration will be attempted, by means of the Mars helicopter. The helicopter will not have a pilot, instead it will have autonomous capacity that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own.

The Mars 2020 objectives are to identify past environments capable of supporting microbial life, seek signs of possible past microbial life in those habitable environments, collect core rock and soil samples and store them on the Martian surface and test oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere. For the first time, sound on Mars will be recorded. The small helicopter has been tested under Mars conditions already. The atmosphere on Mars is very thin but the helicopter has been flying successfully during the tests in a laboratory, van Zyl told the audience.

Since the rover Curiosity, started its journey on the red planet after its landing on 6 August 2012, some landmarks on Mars have been named after Namibian places, thanks to Dr van Zyl and Dr John Grotzinger, who is in Namibia at the moment. Names such as Gobabeb (which lies at the foot of Mount Sharp on Mars), Naukluft Plateau, a dune named Namib Dune and a square quadrant called Windhoek.

One of the concerns highlighted by a NUST student is the debris in space circling around Earth and Dr van Zyl explained that the rubbish in space is a huge concern, and that the person or company that finds a way to clean it up would make a fortune. Rubbish from humans is not only posing a problem on Earth but around the blue planet too.

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