Newswise — More than 200 space enthusiasts and scholars have descended on the University of Maryland this weekend for the 12th International Mars Society Convention in hopes of encouraging the human exploration and settlement of the Red Planet within our lifetime.

The four-day conference -- sponsored in part by the university's A. James Clark School of Engineering -- features presentations by scientists from the nearby NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, roundtable discussions with noted authors on Mars and a tour of the Clark School's facilities that are dedicated to human space exploration.

A primary goal of the Mars Society is to convince the president and Congress to support an accelerated U.S. space program that identifies the human exploration of Mars, said society founder Robert Zubrin.

He and more than 150 Mars Society members traveled to Capitol Hill on Friday to meet with legislators, asking them to make the manned exploration of Mars the top priority for America's space program.

"We just celebrated the 40th anniversary of man on the moon, and we realistically could have been recognizing the 20th anniversary of a Mars landing as well," said Zubrin, an aerospace engineer and author of numerous books on exploring Mars.

The greatest benefit of a human mission will be stimulating the scientific interest of young people today, Zubrin said. "The engineers who spearheaded the information technology revolution of the 1990s were most likely inspired by the space revolution of the 1960s," he said.

Patricia Czarnik, director of membership for the society, said that about one-third of the group's 7,000 members are engineers or scientists, another third are students and the remaining third are "just everyday people who have a common interest in the exploration of Mars."

Czarnik and her husband traveled from Wyoming to attend the convention, with others coming from as far away as Australia, Africa, the United Kingdom and Holland.

Jurgen Herholz is here from Germany. A retired aerospace engineer, Herholz said that although there have been several unmanned missions to Mars, much more information could be obtained if humans were able to explore the planet.

"As an engineer, it is clear to me that humans can make on-the-spot decisions on where to dig and what to look for -- or not look for -- and that could give us knowledge and information much quicker," Herholz said.

On Friday, the Mars Society group toured the Clark School's Space Systems Laboratory, observing its neutral buoyancy tank, which Maryland researchers use to design and test new technologies and tools for living and working in space.

"Much of our research is directly applicable to the human exploration of other planets," said David Akin, director of the lab.

Maryland researchers also showed the group a working mock-up of a planetary habitat, where new ideas for living on another planet can be tested, and a laboratory dedicated to developing advanced robotics for challenging environments such as space and the deep ocean.

A highlight of the convention takes place Saturday evening, when former CNN science reporter Miles O'Brien is master of ceremonies for the Mars Society's annual banquet. The event features keynote speaker Carolyn Porco, a planetary scientist who leads the imaging science team for the international Cassini space mission now in orbit around Saturn.

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