by Kim Malville

What’s in the sky this month?

June 7: The moon moves beneath Mars

June 10: The moon is below and to the left of Saturn

June 21: The longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.  June solstice occurs at 4:51 local time. This is the longest night of the year in Antarctica.

June 29: This will be another chance to catch the moon next to a June planet. Low on the western horizon about 45 minutes after sunset, look for the slender crescent moon. Just to its right will be Jupiter.

Life in space

Plants are now being grown at the International Space Station as part of a joint research project of Russia’s Institute of Biomedical Problems and Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory. The project is exploring if one can grow plants in a gravity-free environment. If plants can grow at the International Space Station, they certainly should be able to grow on Mars.

So far, station crews have harvested peas, leafy greens and a variety of dwarf wheat, all of which have now been certified as safe to eat. You can tell in the figure that the plants are standing strong, growing upward toward the artificial light source. It’s fortunate those plants know about phototropism. After undergoing some repairs this year, the greenhouse will be restocked with rice, tomatoes and bell peppers. In addition to supplementing the crew’s diet, the crops will be analyzed to see if they genetically change in space. At least, they are not outside the Space Station, exposed to dangerous radiation.

Surviving in space

In another study at the International Space Station, two varieties of spore-forming bacteria were placed on aluminum chips and left outside for a year and a half, approximately the time required for a space craft to get to Mars. In the vacuum of space they experienced huge temperature variations, boiling and freezing, and were exposed to ultraviolet lights from the sun and cosmic rays. Most of those plants that were exposed to ultraviolet light were killed. However, of those protected shadowed from sunlight about half survived.

Here we have a little of good and bad news. Travelling spacecraft to Mars may have terrestrial stowaways, and we don’t want to contaminate that planet with terrestrial bacteria, before we have a chance to determine whether or not there’s life on the Red Planet. There is an ethic involved: we really do want to maintain the purity of other worlds. The spacecraft and instruments that we have sent to Mars have been  baked for hours, in what NASA describes as a large casserole dish. It’s baking and not broiling, and hence there may be some bacteria have survive the process. NASA is searching for more effective procedures such as chemical sterilization. However, these new discoveries about how hardy microbial life is in the extreme environment of space, have caused more concerns about the adequacy of the sterilization procedures. The other side of the coin involves future space vehicles or samples of dirt coming from Mars, and we want to be sure they don’t bring alien organisms with them, which could be disastrous for life on Earth.

Colonizing Mars

German astrophysicist Robert Schwarz, who runs the major telescope at the South Pole, is eager and well prepared for a one-way trip to Mars. His is the telescope that recently made momentous discoveries about gravity waves and inflation in the early universe, described in this column in the Eagle two months ago.  Schwarz has applied to the program called Mars One, which is designed to send colonists the Red Planet by 2025. It’s planned to be a one-way trip. These colonists plan to die on Mars. Have you ever wondered what makes someone tick who makes such a incredible commitment?  Meet Robert, who was interviewed recently by New Scientist (20 May 2014: newscientist.com). He currently is in his tenth winter at the South Pole, returning each year home to trees and grass for only two and a half months. He says he certainly knows what it is to live in a remote environment. The South Pole is a harsh environment psychologically because of the extreme cold and dryness, and the fact that it’s six months of darkness, six months of light. Mars might actually be more benign. Schwarz considers winters at the South Pole to be more dangerous than at the International Space Station, where if a disaster occurs, one can jump into their Soyuz spacecraft and be back on Earth in 3 hours. At the South Pole, if they lose electricity during the Antarctic winter with temperatures of 100°F, and can’t start their backup generators, they are most likely doomed. It would take weeks to get a plane down there, which might not actually be able to land in the frigid darkness of midwinter.

On Mars it might be years before help arrives. But as a colonist he thinks he could cope. “I’m good at fixing electronic and mechanical stuff. Down here you have to improvise because you have limited resources; you have to come up with solutions with the stuff you have. That will be even harder on Mars.”  Schwarz comments that he would leave the earth “laughing and crying.” If he departs for Mars in 10 years he’ll be 54. “That would be an age where I would say, yes, okay, I’m ready to leave now. I think the best Mars astronaut would be between 60 and 70, because you’d still be healthy enough to have your wits about you, but you had a life on Earth as well. I am not married. I still have my parents, a brother and nieces. It’s certainly something you have to consider. Going to Antarctica, you never know what’s going to happen and you can’t just fly home. Going to Mars is a step farther because you’re never going to come back.”