Future Mars Missions Will Include Water-hunting and Growing Plants

Astronaut Steve Swanson tends to the Veggie experiment on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.

MONTREAL – NASA’s push to land people on the moon in 2024 is a stepping stone to a much larger goal – landing people on Mars.

But before humans can set foot on the Red Planet, robots must characterize the nature of the environment, and life support (including plants) must be readied for the long journey across the solar system. This research is going on today, as a trio of speakers showed at the Montreal Space Symposium Friday (Oct. 11).

One presentation talked about the proliferation of plants sent to the International Space Station under a series of experiments called Veggie. The system has become so crucial to astronaut well-being that NASA is now characterizing plants as an essential part of life support – so essential that the agency plans to bring them to future projects such as the Lunar Gateway and lunar landings, said Mark Lefsrud, an associate professor at McGill University.

Lefsrud described his experiences working with the Vegetable Production System (also known as Veggie), which grows plants in “pillows” with passive watering and regular monitoring by astronauts and ground personnel. Achievements of the system include producing flowers in space – which astronauts gathered into bouquets to celebrate Valentine’s Day in 2016 on the space station – and producing lettuce that was deemed safe enough for the astronauts to consume.

First Flower Grown in Space Station's Veggie Facility
First Flower Grown in Space Station’s Veggie Facility. Credit: NASA.

But there have been some challenges with Veggie, he explained to the audience. In late 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly was in the midst of his one-year mission when the crew discovered the zinnia plants in Veggie had been overwatered and were displaying signs of water stress, including starting to die. Kelly assigned himself plant duty over the Christmas holiday to make sure the zinnias would survive, and by monitoring their feeding more closely, he helped the zinnias bloom in the following weeks.

As NASA plans to refine watering on newer iterations of Veggie for future ISS missions, the agency is engaged in a hunt for water on the surface of the Red Planet. The planet has an atmosphere too thin today for running water on the surface, with the exception of possible briny combinations. But in the ancient past, Mars had a much thicker atmosphere before solar radiation carried molecules away into space.

Debarati Das is a McGill student who is a student collaborator with NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory team for the Curiosity mission. Das, who is also a National Geographic explorer, is part of a team analyzing rocks in Curiosity’s landing zone (Gale Crater and Mount Sharp) to understand the enrichment of the element boron. 

Veiny 'Garden City' Site and Surroundings on Mount Sharp, Mars
Veiny ‘Garden City’ Site and Surroundings on Mount Sharp, Mars. Credit: NASA.

The team uses ChemCam – the laser experiment on Curiosity – to seek boron (an indicator of past groundwater) and to understand activity on Mars after the water dried up. Boron is not only an indicator of a watery environment, but it is also an important part of the structure of RNA (the cousin molecule to DNA, which carries genetic information between generations). 

In December 2016, Das’ team announced the Curiosity rover found boron in mineral veins on the planet Mars – which is the first time boron was ever found on the Red Planet itself. However, boron has been discovered in a few Martian meteorites over the years, which suggests that it was around during different eras of Red Planet history.

The final presentation of the trio at the symposium involved the issue of parsing results from an increasing number of missions on Mars. According to McGill Ph.D. student Erin Gibbons, using multisensor data fusion could be useful to identify clay minerals – clay also being an indicator of past water on the surface.

Multisensor data fusion is a technology that combines information from several sources to form a more consistent, accurate and unified impression of a target. While Gibbons spoke about its use for Mars exploration, it has multiple applications – even including detecting explosives.

The benefit of this approach is it allows researchers to fuse several information sources autonomously. With the number of missions to Mars climbing, this could allow for more automated analysis of results from multiple instruments on one mission, or multiple missions working together.

Gibbons added this would be a useful tool for Mars exploration today and in the future. Today there are eight spacecraft on and orbiting Mars, and seven more are scheduled through 2024. At least a dozen more missions beyond that will arrive at Mars by the mid 2040s.

Canadian Space Summit 2019

About Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell
Is SpaceQ's Associate Editor as well as a business and science reporter, researcher and consultant. She recently received her Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota and is communications Instructor instructor at Algonquin College.