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BBC World Service - Discovery


Explorations in the world of science.


  • The Martian Mission
    What would it take for humans to live permanently on Mars? asks Martin in Weston-super-Mare, UK. The doctors dig into requirements and possibilities of a long-term Martian outpost. We know that many missions to Mars have failed, for a range of reasons – malfunctions, crashes and even a mix-up between imperial and metric units. Getting to Mars – let alone decelerating from 30,000 miles per hour to a safe landing speed in about seven minutes – is not straightforward. Aerospace engineer Anita Sengupta helped land NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars. She knows first-hand the challenges of putting a robot on the red planet. But getting robots to Mars is an easier proposition than doing the same for humans. Even if we work out how to survive the radiation exposure on the eight-month journey and the pulverising descent, Mars’ surface isn’t easily habitable. Principal investigator for NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) Bruce Jakosky describes the conditions on Mars: Freezing, with an atmosphere containing mostly carbon dioxide and very little water, and subject to annual global dust storms. However, this isn’t deterring space agencies and private companies from researching the challenge. The European Space Agency and Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems focussed on finding out the physiological and psychological tolls by selecting six candidates to spend 520 days in a simulated spacecraft and landing module. Diego Urbina explains the personal challenge of taking part in the Mars500 experiment. Some private company owners have gone even further. As well as making technology based on the current physical conditions, could those constraints themselves be altered? Could Mars be terraformed, or warmed, for easier human survival? Bruce Jakosky shares just what that would take – and compares these requirements with what’s actually available.

  • The equal rights stuff
    In 1976, Nasa launched a campaign to help recruit the next generation of Astronauts. It was fronted by African-American actress Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, as part of an effort to ensure the astronaut corps represented the diversity of the United States. When they were revealed to the press, the 35 members of the new astronaut group included six women, three African American men and one Asian American man. All were appointed on merit. The selection of the first women caused quite a stir. As the ‘first mom in space’, Anna Fisher was asked by the press whether she was worried about her child (none of the fathers were asked). There were also jibes about separate restrooms and whether the women would ‘weep’ if something went wrong. Meanwhile, Nasa’s engineers suggested developing a zero-g makeup kit and the first US woman in space, Sally Ride, was issued with a long string of tampons (joined together like sausages) for a six-day mission. To mark the 40th anniversary of the first Shuttle launch in April 1981, astronaut Nicole Stott speaks to some of these pioneers and hears how Nasa has since aimed to become a beacon for diversity. Contributors also include astronaut Charles Bolden, the first African American to head the space agency and – as Nasa prepares to land the first woman on the Moon – its new head of human spaceflight, Kathy Lueders. (Image: Sally Ride. Credit: Nasa) Producer: Richard Hollingham

  • Lithium: Chile’s white gold
    The Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2019 was awarded to John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino "for the development of lithium-ion batteries." These rechargeable batteries are in our phones, and in our laptops. And they will be the batteries powering electric vehicles which we are being urged to use in place of ones fuelled by gasoline and diesel. Jane Chambers finds out how the element lithium has become so important in the world today. She lives in Chile, where lithium is called the country’s white gold, as it is the source of much of the world’s supply. Jane travels to the Atacama Desert and visits the SQM mine where lithium is evaporated out of huge brine lakes. She talks to Professor Clare Grey of Cambridge University about her research into improving the efficiency of lithium ion batteries. And Dr Paul Anderson of Birmingham University explains what needs to be done for more lithium to be recycled. Editor: Deborah Cohen Picture: Lithium plant in Atacama Desert, Chile, Credit: SQM

  • Patient zero: Coronavirus and contact tracing
    Today’s episode is about the history we’re still living. From Melbourne to Munich, Lombardy to Wuhan and all the way back again, this episode is about what happened when we faced those first coronavirus cases. Where things went well, where they didn’t, and where contact tracing was effective — and whether there’s anything we could have done to stop it. Presented by Olivia Willis of ABC Australia. (Picture: Coronavirus particles spreading in a crowd of people, Credit: Peter Howell/Getty Images)

  • The Evidence: Mental health and the pandemic
    Year two of the pandemic, and in tandem with rising rates of illness, death, acute economic shock and restrictions on everyday life, mental health problems have risen too. Claudia Hammond and her panel of global experts answer listeners’ questions about the pandemic of mental illness and distress, and find out which groups have been hardest hit. Children and young people were at low risk from the virus itself, but their lives have been upended as societies have locked down. Older people too have suffered loneliness and isolation as they have tried to keep themselves safe. What does the evidence show about the true scale of suffering, and what can we learn from other countries about the best way to support those in real distress and bolster resilience within communities? Claudia hears from Giulia in Brazil about her struggles with anxiety and from Mohsen in Tehran, Iran, about the techniques he is using to cope with anxiety and depression following the serious illness of himself and his family from the virus. Her global panel of experts includes Dr Lola Kola, a mental health specialist and Assistant Director at the WHO Collaborating Centre at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, one of the authors of a major review of the mental health impacts of the pandemic in low and medium income countries published last month in Lancet Psychiatry; Andrew Steptoe, Professor of Psychology and Epidemiology at University College London in the UK, leading the UK Social Study, the world’s largest study into the mental health impact of the pandemic during the longest enforced isolation in living history; Cathy Creswell, Professor of Developmental Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford in the UK, is head of the Co-Space Study, tracking how parents and children are coping during this pandemic; and Steven Taylor is a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Steven specialises in anxiety disorders, and just before the pandemic, he published a book, called The Psychology of Pandemics. Production team: Fiona Hill, Samara Linton and Maria Simons Editor: Deborah Cohen Technical support: Giles Aspen and Bob Nettles Picture: Young men wearing protective mask to protect against Covid-19 (Credit: Visoot Uthairam/Getty Images)