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The Red Planet....Second year students of St Flannan's; Kiya Healy, student of Anne Quinlivan, and Claire Sweeney, student of John Conneely, with their Boarding Cards for Mars. Photograph by John Kelly

St Flannan’s College is out of this world

AN Ennis school has proven itself to be out of this world by being a part of a NASA mission to Mars. The names of some 300 St Flannan’s College students and teachers have been sent to the Red Planet on NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover, with the spacecraft expected to touchdown on February 18.
St Flannan’s physics teacher John Conneely tells us that the school is excited to be a part of this momentous occasion, which marks one small step towards human exploration of the planet.
He explains that the school got involved through NASA’s ‘Send Your Name to Mars’ campaign, part of a public engagement initiative to highlight missions involved with NASA’s journey from the Moon to Mars. The Ennis names join millions of others submitted from people all over the world.
“We are very pleased to be part of NASA’s latest educational programme. If the Perseverance lander can survive the ‘seven minutes of terror’ decent into the thin Martian atmosphere, St Flannan’s College will be part of a symbolic human presence on Mars.”
The school already has a long history of being involved with NASA projects. Over the years students from St Flannan’s have enjoyed success in the international NASA Ames Space Settlement design contest. As part of this they had the chance to present their designs at the prestigious International Space Development Conference in the US which over the years has featured speakers such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
Mr Conneely adds that there was a very positive reaction among the school community to getting involved in the latest ‘names on Mars’ endeavour. He acknowledged the science and computer departments for their support alongside everybody who took part.
The 300 names of the St Flannan’s College students and teachers on their way to Mars have been individually stencilled on to three fingernail sized metal chips by electron beam and are due to touch down on the Jezero Crater.
Mr Conneely adds, “The chips are attached to the structure of the ‘Perseverance’ Mars Rover and contain the name of close to 11 million participants, as part of NASA’s ‘Send Your Name to Mars’ campaign. Each participant received a boarding pass as a memento of the mission.”
He explains that the boarding card is ‘interactive’, allowing people to track the progress of the mission in real time. Mr Conneely believes that advances in space exploration could mean that in the not so distant future, there is a chance the students and teachers themselves may be able to make their own journey to Mars.
“The way things are progressing it is not completely beyond the beyond. If you look at what Jeff Bezos is doing, who we actually got to meet on a trip to Los Angeles, and also Elon Musk, one of his big goals is to set up a space colony.
“In the future some of our students and teachers, whose names will hopefully reside on Mars for thousands of years, may be able to visit the red planet in person and who knows even become Martians,” he says.
Perseverance was launched with the Ingenuity helicopter attached, from Cape Canaveral, on July 30, 2020. Ingenuity is the first helicopter to attempt a flight on another planet.
“One of the most exciting aspects of the mission is the Ingenuity helicopter. The experimental helicopter has been designed to lift off for 90 seconds in the very thin Martian atmosphere,” says Mr Conneely.
He explains, “The Rover will collect rock and soil samples which will be returned to Earth by future missions. The Rover is about the size of a large car. It is equipped with 23 of the most advanced cameras ever sent to Mars, with panoramic and zoom capabilities, and two microphones. Other hardware includes experimental equipment, known as MOXIE, to demonstrate that oxygen can be produced from carbondioxide in the Martian atmosphere.
“If successful oxygen could be produced in-situ on Mars in advance of future missions and be used as part of the fuel mix for rockets returning to Earth. A ‘SuperCam’ to allow the terrain to be chemically analysed from a distance. An X-Ray fluorescence Spectrometer for detailed analysis of elements present on Mars. An Ultraviolet Raman Spectrometer as part of a mapping instrument called SHERLOC.”
The landing site on Mars, the Jezero Crater, was chosen as it once contained a water lake. “The crater is believed to be a prime location for finding evidence of ancient microbial life. Investigating whether life ever existed on Mars is the Rover’s main goal,” he says.
The landing of the Rover will be broadcast live online, with Mr Conneely and the students and teachers planning to watch the event. “It’s the heaviest Rover ever and it will come in very fast. It’s not guaranteed that it will arrive safe, so there will be a bit of drama in that. But we’ll be watching it and fingers crossed it will be OK.”

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