Feb. 24, 2006
NASA is planning a human habitat on Mars. What will they eat when they get
Robert Cook, professor of computer sciences, is experimenting with Earth plants that can survive on Mars in his office. His goal is to seed life on the surface of Mars and to move toward robotic greenhouses that will provide food plants for future astronauts.
In 2004 and 2005 Cook served as a Faculty Fellow with NASA, which was the catalyst for starting this project. He wanted to find a way to encourage middle and high school students to do science or school projects on the Mars mission. “The trick is that whatever I came up with, it had to be something a middle or high school student could realistically do safely and maybe with school equipment and not too expensive,” he explained.
“The Mars atmosphere is cold, low pressure and carbon dioxide is the major gas,” he said. “But it turns out that plants on Earth like carbon dioxide and generate oxygen. We do have plants that exist in cold, dry conditions, such as cacti and lichens, but we don’t necessarily have a duplicate of the type of atmosphere you’d find on Mars.”
Cook decided to use a vacuum Bell Jar because it is part of almost every high school’s science equipment. He added carbon dioxide using a bicycle flat tire kit, then added cactus from Wal-Mart and pumped the atmosphere to a low pressure. “The missing ingredient is a low temperature,” he said.
“Mars really doesn’t have cloudy days–it has dusty days, but not cloudy ones,” he said. “There is plenty of sunshine on Mars and the climate is cold and dry–but they think there is ice underneath the surface.
“We assume that there could be warmer geothermal areas on the surface or that plants in a portable greenhouse would be warmer,” he explained.
In recent months, Cook has visited a high school and an elementary school on Hilton Head Island, S.C., where he gave invited talks on the topic. “After visiting the schools I received responses from teachers saying they were going to start a Mars garden,” he said.
Cook is excited about the potential this project could have. “As far as we know at this point, Mars is a lifeless planet and we have the ability to bring life to it,” he said. “Mars is an entire world that we have the opportunity to populate if we can figure out what will grow there. That’s pretty exciting.”