Pioneering Mars: Turning the Red Planet Green with Earth's Smallest Settlers (Pioneering Mars) - 07.15.14

Overview | Description | Applications | Operations | Results | Publications | Imagery
ISS Science for Everyone

Science Objectives for Everyone

The Pioneering Mars: Turning the Red Planet Green with Earth's Smallest Settlers (Pioneering Mars) experiment turns the Red Planet green, at least virtually, by studying blue-green algae living in a Mars-like environment. Twin studies on the International Space Station and at the University of Southern Mississippi examine how extremophile algae from Antarctica might grow in low temperatures, low atmospheric pressure, with minimal sunlight and in microgravity. The experiment is meant to simulate Mars-like conditions.
 

Science Results for Everyone
Information Pending



The following content was provided by Scott Milroy, Dr., and is maintained in a database by the ISS Program Science Office.

Experiment Details

OpNom Pioneering Mars (TBD)

Principal Investigator(s)

  • Scott Milroy, Dr., University of Southern Mississippi, Stennis Space Center, MS, United States

  • Co-Investigator(s)/Collaborator(s)
  • Julie Cwikla, Ph.D., University of South Alabama, Mobile, AL, United States

  • Developer(s)
    University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS, United States

    John C. Stennis Space Center, , MS, United States

    Sponsoring Space Agency
    National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

    Sponsoring Organization
    NASA Education (EDU)

    Research Benefits
    Information Pending

    ISS Expedition Duration


    Expeditions Assigned
    Information Pending

    Previous ISS Missions
    Information Pending

    ^ back to top



    Experiment Description

    Research Overview

    • The research is needed because astronomers and planetary scientists surmise that Mars offers the best prospect for the existence of extraterrestrial life within our own solar system. The study will explore the feasibility of seeding the Martian landscape with photosynthetic extremophiles to alter the surface of the planet, thus preventing liquid water from escaping into vapor, supporting photosynthesis. The impact of the research is to engage local high school students and their teachers in all aspects of the scientific method as it specifically relates to STEM in support of NASA’s educational mission to “inspire, engage, educate, and employ.”

    Description

    This experiment seeks to explore the feasibility of growing photosynthetic extremophiles in a Mars-like environment.  

    Background
    While the typical Martian surface temperatures range from -87° to -5° C, surface temperatures can reach ~20° C in tropical latitudes during the Martian summer.  While the length of the Martian day is essentially equal to Earth’s, Mars receives only 43% insolation compared to the Earth.  In terms of photon flux to the Martian surface, this reduction of solar irradiance is somewhat offset by the longer duration of the Martian summer, which is 1.88X longer than the summer season on Earth.  On planet earth, the presence of liquid water and sufficient photon flux are both considered essential to life.  More specifically, they are both considered to be fundamental requirements for the primary production of organic molecules via photosynthesis.

    However, it is the third general requirement of photosynthesis, the availability of carbon dioxide gas, which presents the greatest obstacle to Martian photosynthesis.  While the Earth’s monthly mean concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide for February 2012 was 393.65 ppm, atmospheric partial pressure of carbon dioxide is just 0.0004 bar (assuming an overall atmospheric pressure of 1 bar at zero elevation).  Despite a far more diffuse Martian atmosphere of 0.0061 bar (a global and annual mean value), carbon dioxide accounts for 95.5% of all atmospheric gases on Mars.  Interestingly, gaseous carbon dioxide is ~12X more abundant on Mars (in terms of atmospheric partial pressure of carbon dioxide) than on Earth.  While the relative abundance of Martian carbon dioxide would at first seem stimulative to photosynthetic production, the extremely low atmospheric pressures of Mars will generally cause water ice to sublimate to water vapor.  Hence, under typical Martian conditions, water is absent from the Martian surface in its liquid phase.  And without liquid water, the persistence of life (as we currently know it) would not be possible.

    By definition, a "triple point" indicates the unique combination of temperature and pressure at which all three phases of a substance (solid, liquid, and vapor) can exist in equilibrium.  For water, the triple point occurs exactly at 0.01° C and 6.1173 millibars.  Under “typical” Martian conditions, temperatures are either well below 0° C (solid-phase water) or pressures are below 6.1173 millibars (vapor-phase water).  However, exotic regions do exist in the Martian tropics where deep valleys/craters (e.g. Valles Marineris) exhibit elevated atmospheric pressures (due to low elevation), up to 12 millibars.  According to the phase diagram for pure water, liquid water could exist on the Martian surface (at pressures in excess of 6.1 millibars) across a temperature range of 0.01 – 6.84 degrees.  At these temperatures, the liquid meltwaters would dissolve much of the inorganic salts present in the Martian soil, resulting in brine pools of sufficient ion activity so as to further stabilize water in its liquid form lowering its freezing point.  

    In order to explore the feasibility of seeding the Martian landscape with photosynthetic extremophiles, it shall be necessary to utilize Earth-bound species which are able to survive and persist in environments analogous to the physio-chemical climate of Mars.  The most promising candidates would be those autotrophs which are capable of long-term subsistence within the low-light, low-temperature environments of the Antarctic continent.

    Within the permanent ice cover of Antarctic lakes, diverse microbial communities, dominated by cyanobacteria, have been shown to preferentially colonize the sediment particles mixed with ice due in large part to the increased absorption of solar energy in the “dirty ice” , thereby maximizing the availability of liquid meltwater for photosynthesis.  While primary production within Antarctic cyanophyte communities is variable and generally low, cyanophytes are capable of surviving extended periods of intense freezing but regain autotrophic viability when temperatures exceed -2° C.

    Investigation
    For this experiment, it will be necessary to culture cyanophytes which have been specifically adapted to:  atmospheric pressures of 6 – 12 millibars (95% carbon dioxide); ambient temperatures from -2° to +10° C; best estimates of Martian soil and mineralogy and water ice mixtures; best estimates of diurnal light/temperature periodicity; reduced (43%) spectral solace irradiance.

    Earth-based inoculation and culture chambers shall be used to simulate the low temperature, low-light, and low pressure environments of the Martian surface.  The micro-gravity conditions of the ISS provide the opportunity to investigate the viability and photosynthetic production of the cyanophyte community in the reduced gravity environments (which will be most representative of the Martian surface conditions).

    ^ back to top



    Applications

    Space Applications

    The Pioneering Mars experiment explores the possibility of growing aquatic algae in low temperatures, low pressures, low light and low gravity conditions. This helps test the feasibility of space-based air scrubbers that use aquatic algae to convert carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen. The experiment also benefits possible future Mars exploration. If humans are ever to live on Mars, they would need a source of food. Seeding the planet with algae that can derive energy from light would be one way for colonists to grow their own food on the Martian surface.
     

    Earth Applications

    More than 100 high school students helped develop and plan the Pioneering Mars experiments, providing exposure and training for future science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. The project includes a web-based curriculum that any teacher can access. Along with student interaction, the experiments invite the public to learn more about our planet, by studying the conditions on Earth versus those on Mars.
     

    ^ back to top



    Operations

    Operational Requirements

    The use of low-light, low-temperature, micro-gravity culture chambers onboard the ISS is used to mimic the physicochemical conditions of the Martian surface.  Daily non-invasive fluorometric analysis of samples from the cell culture chambers is required; periodic fiber-optic analysis of internal [O2] will also be conducted.  If fluorometric/fiber-optic analyses cannot be conducted onboard the ISS, samples can be preserved (frozen) and analyzed after down-mass.  

    Data collection requirements include the following:  Incubation chamber parameters:  ambient temperature; gravity; spectral light intensity, duration, and periodicity; culture chamber internal pressure.  If aquatic samples can be analyzed onboard the ISS, will also need total in vivo chlorophyll data via non-invasive fluorometric analysis and internal [O2] data via a fiber-optic gas analyzer.  If samples cannot be analyzed onboard the ISS, such data can be analyzed from frozen (-40° C) chambers retrieved after down-mass.

    No downlink of data anticipated unless data (listed previously) can be transmitted easily in near real-time.

    Cold stowage (-40° C preservation; +6° to +10° C experimental) throughout the mission will be critical for the experiment and samples.

    The use of low-light, low-temperature, micro-gravity culture chambers onboard the ISS is used to mimic the physicochemical conditions of the Martian surface.  Daily non-invasive fluorometric analysis of samples from the cell culture chambers is required; periodic fiber-optic analysis of internal [O2] will also be conducted.  If fluorometric/fiber-optic analyses cannot be conducted onboard the ISS, samples can be preserved (frozen) and analyzed after down-mass.  

    Data collection requirements include the following:  Incubation chamber parameters:  ambient temperature; gravity; spectral light intensity, duration, and periodicity; culture chamber internal pressure.  If aquatic samples can be analyzed onboard the ISS, will also need total in vivo chlorophyll data via non-invasive fluorometric analysis and internal [O2] data via a fiber-optic gas analyzer.  If samples cannot be analyzed onboard the ISS, such data can be analyzed from frozen (-40° C) chambers retrieved after down-mass.

    No downlink of data anticipated unless data (listed previously) can be transmitted easily in near real-time.

    Cold stowage (-40° C preservation; +6° to +10° C experimental) throughout the mission will be critical for the experiment and samples.

    Operational Protocols

    Maintain all micro-incubation chambers @ -40° C until commencement of experiment.  Adjust experimental temperatures to range ideally +6° to +10° C and adjust gravity to 0.375g in TBD centrifuge, and provide power/automatic experiment control via USB cable, using on-board computer.  Allow growth experiments to proceed for a minimum of 5 days and a maximum of 14 days (depending upon resource/crew availability).  Provide crew access once/day to micro-incubation chambers for non-invasive fluorometric measurements of chlorophyll-a concentrations (time requirement of 1-2 seconds per measurement); periodic access throughout the day would be necessary for fiber-optic cable hook-up for internal [O2] measurements and disconnection of fiber-optic cables to allow return to TBD centrifuge for gravitation maintenance.  If daily fluorometric analyses cannot be conducted onboard the ISS, post-experimental samples can be preserved @ -40° C for analysis after down-mass.Maintain all micro-incubation chambers @ -40° C until commencement of experiment.  Adjust experimental temperatures to range ideally +6° to +10° C and adjust gravity to 0.375g in TBD centrifuge, and provide power/automatic experiment control via USB cable, using on-board computer.  Allow growth experiments to proceed for a minimum of 5 days and a maximum of 14 days (depending upon resource/crew availability).  Provide crew access once/day to micro-incubation chambers for non-invasive fluorometric measurements of chlorophyll-a concentrations (time requirement of 1-2 seconds per measurement); periodic access throughout the day would be necessary for fiber-optic cable hook-up for internal [O2] measurements and disconnection of fiber-optic cables to allow return to TBD centrifuge for gravitation maintenance.  If daily fluorometric analyses cannot be conducted onboard the ISS, post-experimental samples can be preserved @ -40° C for analysis after down-mass.

    ^ back to top



    Results/More Information
    Information Pending

    ^ back to top



    Results Publications

    ^ back to top


    Ground Based Results Publications

    ^ back to top


    ISS Patents

    ^ back to top


    Related Publications

      Osterloo MM, Hamilton VE, Bandfield JL, Bandfield JL, Glotch TD, Baldridge AM, Baldridge AM, Christensen PR, Tornabene LL, Anderson FS.  Chloride-Bearing Materials in the Southern Highlands of Mars. Science. 2008 March 21; 319(5870): 1651-1654. DOI: 10.1126/science.1150690.

      Fritsen CH, Priscu JC.  Cyanobacterial Assemblages in Permanent Ice Covers on Antarctic Lakes: Distribution, Growth Rate, and Temperature Response of Photosynthesis. Journal of Phycology. 1998 August; 34(4): 587-597. DOI: 10.1046/j.1529-8817.1998.340587.x.

      Krasnopolsky VA.  Atmospheric chemistry on Venus, Earth, and Mars: Main features and comparison. Planetary and Space Science. 2011 August; 59(10): 952-964. DOI: 10.1016/j.pss.2010.02.011.

    ^ back to top


    Related Websites
    Pioneering Mars
    Facebook/Pioneering Mars

    ^ back to top



    Imagery