Oct 14, 2014 06:48 PM EDT
In hopes of a long future on the Red Planet, researchers have proposed the addition of a horticultural experiment onboard NASA's next Mars rover mission, scheduled to land in 2021. The proposed project, known simply as the "Mars Plant Experiment" (MPX) would not only aid in the understanding of plant growth on foreign planets, but also would lay the foundations for future colonies currently planning on settling in on Mars.
In a forum at the "Humans 2 Mars" conference, held earlier this spring in Washington DC, MPX's Deputy Principal Investigator Heather Smith, from NASA's Ames Research Center, discussed the importance of plants on Mars and the future these flora additions may create for humans on the Red Planet.
"In order to do a long-term, sustainable base on Mars, you would want to be able to establish that plants can at least grow on Mars" Smith said. "This would be the first step in that... we just send the seeds there and watch them grow."
Clearly self-aware of the impact that the research could have on the planet, and already planning for contingencies as NASA has been known to do, MPX would be an entirely self-contained unit that would have no impact nor influence on the surface of Mars. Maintaining that the research would not present the possibility of Earth life inhabiting the vastly unexplored planet, MPX would be an entirely isolated project, merely piggy-backing on the exterior of the rover. Situated in a clear "CubeSat" box-an enclosure for small satellites- the box is planned to contain 200 Arabidopsis thaliana seeds, as well as enough of Earth's air and water to grow for two weeks once on the surface of Mars.
"In 15 days, we'll have a little greenhouse on Mars" Smith said. "We would go from this simple experiment to the greenhouses on Mars for a sustainable base; that would be the goal."
As an organic-based experiment on Mars, the MPX would be an experiment fulfilling many firsts. As the first Earth life that would test out the habitable low gravity and relatively high radiation of Mars' surface, MPX "also would be the first multicellular organism to grow, live and die on another planet", Smith says.
Although inspired by NASA's Curiosity rover, and created by a large assembly of NASA's top researchers, the 2020 Mars rover's final mission plans are still not finalized by a long shot. Intended to search for past Martian species life, as well as to collect samples that would return to Earth, NASA has planned to likely add 10 additional instruments/projects to the rover's load, of the 58 currently proposed during NASA's call for submissions.
As a sign for life on Mars, and a source of necessary oxygen for life, MPX will usher in a new era of life to the currently uninhabited planet, and could make space colonization a viable reality.
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