Get ready for launch, it’s time for the latest edition of Gardeners off World!

I am fascinated by all of the ways in which we recreate life in space on Earth. Scientists and astronauts alike rely on analogs to simulate off-world conditions, to learn about the universe or train for upcoming missions. NASA has a giant swimming pool, the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL), for practising spacewalks. Marina Koren has written about her visit to watch NASA’s gruelling underwater test for astronauts. She didn’t stay to the end: “A typical spacewalk rehearsal lasts about six and a half hours, with no breaks.”

An astronaut training in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at the NASA Johnson Space Center Houston.

South Korea has built the world’s biggest moon simulator

“The so-called dusty thermal vacuum chamber (DTVC) combined with lunar soil is the first and biggest of its kind in the world, state-funded Korea Institute of Civil Engineering and Building Technology (KICT) said on Tuesday during its opening ceremony in Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province.”

The dusty thermal vacuum chamber (DTVC), South Korea’s Moon simulator [Photo provided by KICT]

The DTCV recreates lunar surface temperatures, ranging from extremely hot to extremely cold, and the lack of atmosphere. The KICT has also built a facility that can produce up to 200kg of artificial lunar soil (regolith simulant) a day, 

If you’re thinking that you’d love to visit the NBL and the DTCV (I certainly am!), then check out the ‘Mars base camp’ China has built in the Gobi Desert. For students. It’s like a space-age Youth Hostel!

Analog sites aren’t always this high-tech. Scientists reviewing the data sent back from Mars by the Curiosity rover have discovered that it’s sitting on soil strikingly similar to that on some Scottish islands. And there’s a salt mine in the north of England that is “home to various forms of hardy microbial life, offering a window on what life could be like in similar conditions on Mars.” Astrobiologists go there to investigate, and recently some Australian artists visited to focus on how sensory deprivation affected their work.

“They are interested in how art might be used in settling people in places such as Mars or Moon colonies. While early extraterrestrial settlers will be astronauts and scientists, art has been important to humans for thousands of years as evidenced by cave paintings up to 40,000 years old – and conceivably art could be just as important to human life on other planets.”

Scientists from NASA’s Mars 2020 & the European-Russian ExoMars mission explore the Australian Outback.
August 2019. [Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Remote parts of Western Australia remain almost untouched by humanity and could be the key to finding life on Mars. Scientists from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) visited to learn what samples they should collect during Mars missions and how to look for Martian rocks that may contain fossilised forms of life. The area is a state-recognised geo-heritage reserve, protected from mining activity but threatened by illegal fossil hunters.

“The Pilbara Outback is home to the oldest confirmed fossilised lifeforms on Earth, called stromatolites. If we can better understand how these fossils came to be here — and the nearby geological signposts that help point the way to them — we’ll be that much more prepared when hunting for signs of life on Mars.”

Mars 2020 project scientist Ken Farley, from NASA.

NASA chief scientist Jim Green recently gave a presentation to the International Astronautical Congress about Mars soil studied by the Curiosity rover, in which he talked about its potential for growing food. Curiosity has found that we can get carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur out of the soil in Gale Crater. 

“In this particular area the soils are more alkaline, so this would be OK for growing asparagus and beans and not potatoes. If I had to eat asparagus for three years, I think I’d just take my helmet off and walk outside.” 

Jim Green, via Space.com

Actually, NASA scientists made the discovery of the alkaline soil – and linked it to asparagus growing – way back in 2008, when they analysed data from the Phoenix Mars lander. And in 2014, “astroecologist” Michael Mautner at Virginia Commonwealth University was growing asparagus (and potatoes) in meteorite dust.

Personally, I like asparagus, and I love the idea of perennial vegetables growing on Mars. Still, I think they may be missing the fact that asparagus is a very seasonal vegetable! Perhaps they’re already dreaming up a system that allows asparagus plants to mature in sequence, right through the year. 

A team of Scottish teenagers are sending their plant science experiment into space, after winning the Mission Discovery programme. Their research explores whether artificially increasing root pressure will improve plant growth on the International Space Station. 

“The experiment looks at the relationship between increased plant root pressure in microgravity and plant growth. It could potentially be a food source in space, and it would produce more oxygen which could be stored for deep space missions. The plants could also take in carbon dioxide.”

Nairne Gillespie, in the Greenock Telegraph.

Remember that well-publicised NASA research that growing houseplants can improve indoor air quality? Well, it might work in space stations, but it probably won’t help that much on Earth. Researchers at Drexel University in Philadelphia conducted a review of 12 studies spanning 30 years of research. They concluded that plants dissipate volatile organic compounds (VOCs) at a rate slower than the standard rate of air exchange in a building, making the plants redundant. So you may as well just open the window if you want fresher air.

“Plants are great, but they don’t actually clean indoor air quickly enough to have an effect on the air quality of your home or office environment.”

Dr Michael Waring, associate professor of architectural and environmental engineering, via Forbes.

Need more reading material? Astronomy magazine is offering free downloads of their Martian Homes & Gardens supplement, a guide to how to inhabit Mars and survive on Mars, with articles on a Hi-Seas Martian simulation, and a behind-the-scenes look at how they made The Martian film. 

It may sound like science fiction, but ESA has been investigating whether hibernation has any advantages for human travel to a neighbouring planet like Mars. The Hibernation and Torpor study has the coolest mission patch. Ever. 

“We have a very good understanding of the processes related to the induction and maintaining of hibernation, and major advances can be expected within the next 10 years.”

Hibernating for science? Sign me up for that trial! And on that note, it’s time to crawl into our virtual hibernaculum and hope that Mission Control will keep us safe and wake us up in time for next week’s Gardeners off World!