Space researcher Inge Loes ten Kate: ‘Mars is still my favorite’

When she was around nine years old, Inge Loes ten Kate (1976) already knew what she wanted to do when she grew up: study aerospace engineering and work at NASA. “I was asked to answer that question for a school assignment. I’ve still got that piece of paper somewhere.”

Her passion for space travel was enthused by her father. Ten Kate's parents often took her to museums and observatories as a child. She was allowed to stay up late when, in 1985, Wubbo Ockels became the first Dutchman to travel to space: she watched the trajectory of the just-launched space station from her backyard. “You know, a small dot hurtling through the stars. These days you can still see the International Space Station (ISS) with the naked eye.”

After her studies – aerospace engineering in Delft, as anticipated by that little girl – she got her PhD in Leiden on the topic of surface processes on Mars. “I really enjoyed how practical the research was: what do I want to know and how can I replicate that in experiments?” Afterwards, she used her knowledge of Mars to work at NASA. For five years, she conducted experiments and developed measurement instruments for Curiosity, the Mars rover that landed on the red planet in 2012 and is still going today. Ten Kate has been working at UU since 2012. Today, she is one of the best known Dutch astrobiologists.

And now you have an asteroid named after you. Tell us about it!
“Yes, that was a huge surprise. I was on an ice skating rink with my sons when I got a WhatsApp message from Marco Langbroek, the asteroid’s discoverer. "Have you read your e-mail yet?", he asked me.”

How that work, naming an asteroid?
“There are quite a few asteroids coursing through the universe. Between Mars and Jupiter, for instance, there is a big asteroid belt where new discoveries are made all the time. That is often due to amateur astronomers, who write a short research proposal and then get observing time at a telescope. A new celestial body gets catalogued under some large impossible number, but the discoverers get to name it too, if they want. Comets and asteroids are often named after people who have meant a lot for space science. Langbroek and his colleague thought that I should be nominated and they convinced the Astronomical Union to choose me.”

What is your research about?
“The common thread throughout my work is organic material on Mars. I’m also studying other planets in our solar system now, but Mars is still my favorite. What I’m interested in is the question of how life on earth came to be, and whether it could exist somewhere else too. What were the preconditions? What did the Earth look like in that time? Was life made from materials already available on that planet, or did it need materials from meteorites, for example? To answer those questions, it’s useful to look at the circumstances on other planets.”

Why is that useful?
“By examining other planets, we learn more about how Earth works. Think about the moving tectonic plates: why do we have them, but Mars of Venus don't? Mars is a logical candidate for this type of research, because it once resembled the Earth a great deal. It’s also handy that one can travel to it. That’s why we know quite a lot about Mars, like its day and night temperatures, the composition of its surface and atmosphere, and how much UV radiation it has.

“We can largely replicate these conditions and then experiment on them with all kinds of substances, to see what happens. You could, for instance, put a piece of meteorite on its surface and study the circumstances that allow the molecules with organic material to move from the meteorite to the planetary surface.”

Do you think there any other planets similar to Earth, where there is life?
“There are definitely other planets like Earth. And it seems impossible to me that we are the only planet with living things on it. But that is my gut instinct, because we still lack evidence to make that assertion confidently. However, the laws of physics and science are upheld in the entire universe. Water here boils at 1 bar and a 100 degrees Celsius. If you can find 1 bar and a 100 degrees Celsius elsewhere, water will boil there too. So all in all, physical and chemical reactions occur all the time, everywhere. The same applies to the emergence of life. The question is just which circumstances are necessary.”

What fascinates you about space?
“That there are no limits. The feeling that it never ends, that there is always more to discover, is fantastic. Some people fear that, but to me, the idea that we shouldn’t look beyond Earth makes me claustrophobic. Even just researching Mars feels too limiting to me. I married a geologist who I can never get to come to a planetarium with me. Those clips where you can continue to zoom out, away from the Earth – he really can’t cope with them, while I can only think: 'yes, great, space!'”

UU is home to a lot of research on the climate. How does your field fit in?
“I will not find a direct solution for the climate problem with my research. On the other hand, without space travel we would never have known that we have a huge climate problem in the first place. Thanks to satellites, we can keep an eye on every square centimeter of this planet. Without that, we probably would have known that it was wetter or warmer, but only from space you can map the scale of forest fires or the speed with which the ice caps melt.

“With regards to sustainability, I do try to make planetary science and education at UU more integrated. Precisely because of our use of other planets as context, earthly processes can be viewed as part of a bigger picture. Then you immediately see how special Earth is. There are not many planets like ours, as far as we know now. That’s what I want students to be aware of. Earth is the best there is, so be careful with it.”

Would you want to travel to space yourself?
“Yes, definitely. I know all the reasons why I shouldn’t, but that is still my answer. I’ve tried to become an astronaut for ESA, but I was eliminated in the second round of assessments. I think around 8,500 people signed up. I was among the last 800. We had to do all kinds of computer tests and only 80 people would be left after that. I could try again, of course, but after those two rounds I thought: 'I don’t want to be in this rat race – my goal is not to become a career astronaut. I just want to go to space.'”

Apart from the rat race, what reasons are there not to do it?
“Well, I always go to work by bike. If I got on a space rocket just once… I would never be able to compensate those emissions. I also have two small sons, who'd expect their mother to come back home safely. But if I could get to space easier, I would go in a heartbeat. I think it would be amazing to look at space without the atmospheric filter. To see how grand and sweeping it is up there. There is always more to discover.”

What are your goals as a scientist in the near future?
“I think my big questions about the emergence of life will keep me occupied for some time. But at the moment I’m writing a research proposal about how one would extract the organic basic material from meteorites. Because even if a meteorite does end up on a planet, if the organic material is embedded deep within, nothing much will happen. We want to build a model of the young Earth and see whether we can recreate the circumstances that will free the organic molecules. Very practical research again – a nice, small question.”