A MILLPORT flat is at the centre of the quest to find life on Mars.

A humble property in Glasgow Street has been converted into a control centre for an exercise that will mimic a multi-billion pound mission to explore the red planet in 2023.

Professor John Parnell, a geologist at the University of Aberdeen, turned the living room of his flat into mission HQ on Thursday for a mock up of the ExoMars mission being run by the European Space Agency.

Scientists will make decisions on the presence of life based on images sent back by a rover trundling over the planet's surface but need practice interpreting the pictures that will beamed almost 400 million kilometres back to them.

A trial run saw John watch live pictures relayed to Millport from a rover exploring a quarry in England, guiding other scientists to understand what the images show.

Lessons learned will be used for the Mars mission, telling boffins where to look for evidence of life on the red planet.

In an exclusive interview with the News, John explained the important role the island is playing in answer one of mankind's most important questions.

He said: "I have owned a flat in Millport since 2014 and I carry out some of the scientific work when on the Isle of Cumbrae.

"I love Millport because of its peacefulness and knew it would be the ideal place to set up the mock control centre for the Mars mission."

"I have been working on the Mars exploration project for a decade or more so it is just routine for me, but I'm sure people will be excited to learn Millport is playing its part in the search for extraterrestrial life.

"We use analogue material from all over the world as we attempt to work out what might be going on in Mars, so using rocks from Millport shores is part of our research.

"The rocks from Millport were used for tests of particular instruments. We find some with traces of gold, which told us something about the bacteria from almost 400 million years ago. We want to see whether there is the same evidence of ancient life existing on Mars and if the NASA instruments can detect it. I have provided some samples of my findings from here to help with this."

John told how Millport was the perfect place for the control room.

Largs and Millport Weekly News: Space exploration mock exercise from Millport home - Professor ParnellSpace exploration mock exercise from Millport home - Professor Parnell

The 64-year-old said: "Imagine how the exploration of Mars goes. You are effectively landing a very small spacecraft and a robot emerges from it, slowly moving on the surface and starts doing scientific analysis, prompted by commands from Earth.

"It sounds quite simple but it is actually incredibly complicated and we have to test how that command and instruction actually works. Mars is being replicated by a quarry in Leicestershire using a camera set up as a dummy for the rover and we look through the camera and give advice on what we can see and how we interpret it, as well as what the next steps should be in terms of analysing the rocks."

The professor will continue to give guidance to the ExoMars mission on how to deploy geological instruments to make the most of the findings on Mars' surface. He has written nearly 400 scientific papers on geology, and believes that this research can help make groundbreaking discoveries on a new world.

He said: "I have discovered the importance of the element copper in the evolution of animals from one to two billion years ago and the evolution of life in several aspects from single cells to multiple cells, relating to the chemistry to life.

"I think that it is fifty-fifty as to whether we will find examples of historic life on Mars. It could be the presence of similar chemicals which could prove it. If there is evidence, it is likely to be molecules based on carbon. It might be more chemical fossils and not actual fossils which would show creatures having been there.

"It is a harsh environment. One of the instruments which will be deployed by the rover is a drill which will try and get through the surface which has been heavily altered by radiation.

"I think it is unlikely that a manned expedition will reach Mars in my lifetime - it could be a century away - and even then it will be nothing more than man descending and collecting a few samples and bringing them back. It will be a lot longer before NASA gets to the stage of building a Mars base."

The ExoMars mission will take off next year and take six to 12 months to reach the red planet, with the search for life starting in 2023.

John added: "On the night before the mock control mission, I was looking up at the gorgeous full moon lighting up the bay and making the sea water appear silver. It was very peaceful and reminded me of being on the beach at Newton Bay as a boy taking samples of sand and rocks.

"The island was my inspiration to become a geologist and it is incredible to think that has moved on to helping with the search for life in space."