May 12, 2000
Headquarters, Washington, DC
Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX
A 21st century, space-age simulated Mars soil and one of the world's oldest food sources -- the potato -- have been joined in an experiment that will fly aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis when the STS-101 mission is launched later this month. The experiment, designed by Native American science students, will test how well the "soil" supports plant growth.
Students from Shoshone-Bannock High School on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in southeastern Idaho will compare the plants grown in the synthetic dirt on Earth with those that fly in space. The simulated soil, known as JSC Mars-1, closely resembles the red dirt found on the surface of Mars. The coarse powder -- about the color of cinnamon -- is similar to what scientists know about the color, density, grain size, porosity, chemical composition, mineralogy and magnetic properties of Martian soil.
Known as "Spuds in Space," the experiment will be the first test of the soil simulant as a medium for growing plants in space. It also marks the second time Native American students have flown an experiment on the Shuttle. The first Native American science experiment in space -- also from Shoshone-Bannock High School -- flew on the Shuttle Discovery in 1998.
"As an educator, I am always looking for ways to get students interested in science and life," said Shoshone-Bannock science teacher Ed Galindo. "This Mars soil simulant is an exciting way for students from the Fort Hall Indian Reservation to keep getting excited about space, science and growth, both plant and student." Galindo and several students were in Florida for the three launch attempts earlier this month. They will not be able to travel back to Florida for the next launch attempt, but they do plan to watch the launch on a big screen TV at school while having a launch party and breakfast to celebrate.
Scientists need to understand how plants grow in space, as astronauts on long missions will need to grow their own food. Plants also help produce oxygen and remove carbon dioxide aboard a spacecraft.
"This project has provided Native American students in rural Idaho with hands-on research opportunities and given students a chance to learn about Mars in a fun, educational manner," Galindo said.
Galindo's students, part of the Native American Science Association, have been invited to several universities and local elementary schools to talk to other students about their space experiments. Special emphasis has been placed on getting female students interested in science, with the girls in the group known as the "Sisters in Science."
The potato experiment will be one of 10 experiments flying as part of the Space Experiment Module (SEM) program, an educational initiative to increase access to space for students from kindergarten through college. Since its first flight in 1995, SEM has allowed tens of thousands of students in the United States and other countries to fly their experiments in space. The SEM program is managed by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA. Additional information about the SEM program can be found at: www.wff.nasa.gov/~sspp/sem/sem.html
"These simulants are natural materials that approximate, to the best of our current knowledge, the soils of the Moon and Mars," explained Dr. Carlton Allen of Lockheed Martin Space Operations, Houston, TX. He was part of the NASA Johnson Space Center, university and private industry teams that developed the simulated soils, including one -- JSC-1 -- based on lunar samples collected by Apollo crews.
"In the classroom, the simulants are useful tools for demonstrating the differences between the Moon, Mars and planet Earth," Allen said. In addition to studies of plant growth, they have been used in award-winning science fair projects that evaluated the optical effects of thin dust coatings on rocks. Students also can compare the simulants' properties with actual soils of the Moon and Mars.
"Future sample return missions will bring us actual Mars soil and rock samples, which may pave the way for eventual human missions," Allen said. In the meantime, JSC Mars-1 is supporting a wide range of research, instrument design and engineering studies.
NASA encourages the use of its soil simulants in educational activities and is offering both JSC Mars-1 and JSC-1 to scientists, engineers and educators for only the cost of shipping. Those interested in obtaining samples of either simulant should send their request to the Office of the Curator, NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX 77058.
Galindo and his students are excited about the opportunity to work with NASA. "NASA has given us many wonderful opportunities," he said. "NASA has set very high standards…and as a school we have met those standards. My students have seen a very different and exciting world thanks to NASA."
“These simulants have a variety of scientific and educational benefits,” Allen said. “But perhaps the most important benefit of these artificial soils is that they offer people a tangible opportunity to get physically in touch with the exploration of space.”