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The woman who calls herself New Zealand’s first Martian

Haritina Mogoşanu. Photo/Nicola Edmonds.

In June, New Zealanders turn their eyes to the stars as we celebrate Matariki – but it’s the red planet that captivates space-science communicator Haritina Mogoșanu as humanity’s stepping stone to the future.

Haritina Mogoşanu calls herself Hari – and New Zealand’s first Martian. In 2012, she led the “KiwiMars” team of six who spent a fortnight at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. At the tiny US base station, working and living conditions simulate those humans might encounter in an artificial habitat on the red planet. When the team conducted research outside, in a Mars-like terrain, they wore space suits.

Mogoşanu knew the protocols. She’d been to the station the previous year with the Romanian Space Agency, and has now been four times. “It’s about making every mistake we can on Earth before humans go to Mars,” she says. National and private organisations are taking major steps toward achieving this. “I'd love to go, but wouldn’t leave my 11-year-old daughter.”

Her day job is the newly created role of Senior Science Communicator at Space Place, which includes interactive galleries and a planetarium housed in Wellington Botanic Garden’s Carter Observatory. Special events for Matariki include a dawn viewing by telescope from Mt Victoria.

Mogoşanu comes up with strategies to make space science more accessible and engaging, oversees the content communicated by other staff, leads events, talks to groups, and visits schools to run outreach programmes (some imitating her “Mars missions”). She’s just held her first, sold-out stargazing course for beginners. “I’m a ‘staryteller’!” she says. “It doesn’t feel like work.”

Inside the planetarium’s dome, I watch a short animated film, We Are Aliens, about whether extraterrestrial life forms exist. Mogoşanu thinks it’s highly likely, especially with astronomers detecting more earth-like planets outside our solar system in the “Goldilocks zone” that may sustain life.

“My thing is astrobiology, which combines biology, astronomy, geology, maths and engineering, and asks, ‘What is life in the universe? Are there aliens? And how might we find them?’”

Mogoşanu was brought up by her mum in Bucharest, after her pilot dad crashed and died when she was a baby. “I fell for the stars aged six, after seeing a diagram of the sun’s life cycle.” She started stargazing, but in communist Romania, a job in space science was unlikely. Instead, she got a horticultural-engineering degree and a master’s in environmental management.

In 2003, she visited New Zealand – “because it has the world’s best night sky; we see the centre of the Milky Way and more stars, and have less light pollution. I didn’t want to leave.” She got another master’s degree, in international security, and since 2005 has worked on and off at Space Place, initially as a planetarium presenter and later as visitor-experience manager. She also worked in government biosecurity from 2008 to 2018.

Mogoşanu is part of numerous space research, education and advocacy organisations, including the Mars Society’s New Zealand chapter (dedicated to settling Mars). She set up the Kiwispace Foundation, which successfully lobbied for a New Zealand space agency, and is executive director of the New Zealand Astrobiology Network, which connects experts from different disciplines within academic institutions and agencies.

She’s also created online magazine Milky-Way.Kiwi about space news, plus the podcast Galactic Conversations. Oh, and she’s done an internship at Nasa in planetary protection. “I considered how to kill any trace of earth life that may be on Rovers: vehicles travelling across Mars.” Now, she pairs New Zealand students with scientist mentors from Nasa. “I hope we’ll become an interplanetary species,” she says. “In a billion years, the sun will scorch the earth, and I want my species to survive beyond that. That’s what I’m about.” 

Photo: Haritina Mogoşanu at Wellington’s Space Place. This display depicts the sun as a fiery orange and red blaze, but most of her work has focused on Mars, which appears red due to the iron oxide on its surface.