Hello, and welcome to Gardeners Off World, a weekly round-up of news and entertainment for people who rather fancy getting their hands dirty on another planet!

During its 2019 Steampunks in Space celebrations, the National Space Centre launched the Queen Faketoria Space Programme. The first intrepid astronaut in this programme was Stu the Teddynaut, who launched to the heavens on a helium balloon. After a successful mission, Stu returned to the Space Centre for tea and biscuits and was promoted to Ursa Major. Let’s start today with the video of his adventure:

In December 1972, the last of the ‘dusty dozen‘ walked on the Moon. Geologist Harrison Hagan “Jack” Schmitt became the first of NASA’s member of scientist-astronauts to fly in space, and is still the only professional scientist to have gone beyond the space station. Before he started his own astronaut training, Schmitt helped to train the other Apollo astronauts who would walk on the Moon.

While they were on the Moon, Schmitt and Gene Cernan “drove a 4-centimeter-wide tube into the surface of the Moon” to collect samples. Some of those samples remained unopened for more than 40 years, but now NASA’s Apollo Next-Generation Sample Analysis (ANGSA) initiative is using advanced technologies to study them. They cracked open one sample in November, and a second is scheduled to be analysed in January.

“We are able to make measurements today that were just not possible during the years of the Apollo program. “The analysis of these samples will maximize the science return from Apollo, as well as enable a new generation of scientists and curators to refine their techniques and help prepare future explorers for lunar missions anticipated in the 2020s and beyond.”

Dr Sarah Noble, ANGSA program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington

NASA has some lovely Apollo 50 resources available to download, including a comic book and posters, a paper Moon cut-out, and 3D prints of the lunar landing sites. (And if there’s someone in your life who loves comics, then check out NASA’s selection of astrobiology graphic novels.)

Two members of the BASALT project, conducting a high-fidelity, simulated exploration of basaltic (lava-rock) terrain. The geology of their actual location – Kilauea Iki crater on Hawaii Island – is similar to basalt-rich landscapes found on Mars. Stan Love is a NASA astronaut from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Alex Sehlke is a post-doctoral fellow at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. Image credit: NASA

On Earth, the Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains (BASALT) project is using the volcanic activity of Hawaii Island as an analog for the conditions that existed on ancient Mars. Research here provides NASA with information about the strengths and limitations of current plans for human exploration. Researchers can help to determine which tools and methods future astronauts will need to ensure they collect the right samples for scientists back on Earth. 

Last month, GoffW briefly mentioned NASA and ESA scientists looking for fossilised signs of life in the Australian outback, in preparation for the Mars 2020 and ExoMars missions. NASA has now written an article and made a video about their trip.

“These two Mars missions will be revolutionary because they are complementary. Two different rovers with two different sets of instruments, exploring at the same time two different landing sites. Some of the capabilities of Mars 2020 in characterizing the surface environment could help guide ExoMars on where to drill. Conversely, knowledge of the alteration of possible organics as a function of depth by ExoMars could help Mars 2020 select the most interesting surface samples to collect for future return to Earth.”

Teresa Fornaro, a science team member for the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer instrument aboard ExoMars 
Melbourne, Australia

Mars Society Australia (MSA) wants to build a permanent simulated Mars research station in the Australian outback. The arid desert of the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary, in outback South Australia, has hosted eight Mars simulations over the past 20 years, with researchers working in temporary structures. The proposed site would include “a fake rocket ship, laboratories, exploration rovers, and scientists in spacesuits performing field experiments”. 

“It will allow us to do a wide range of activities that support the vision of human presence on Mars. We can train people in field science and space operations in the area, and we can do education and outreach programs.”

Jonathan Clarke, president of MSA

This video is five years old, but it has some lovely footage of the Airbus’ Mars Yard’, an analog site in Stevenage, Kent. Airbus uses the Mars Yard to test their rover concepts. The Mars Yard has just been in the news again, as Airbus is using it to train a prototype rover to recognise and pick up small cylinders off the ground. The idea is that – during a future mission – a new rover will be able to pick up samples collected by Mars 2020 to return them to Earth for analysis in 2031.

While Mars and the Moon are dry and rocky, the best place to look for life elsewhere in the Solar System may well be underwater. NASA is planning the Europa Clipper mission for 2025, which will explore the icy moon Europa. They’re building a kick-ass underwater rover (which, sadly, doesn’t seem to have a cool name yet) for the mission, and have tested it in the Arctic and Alaska. Its next test will be in Antarctica.

We have a tendency to treat space as a trash can, and the piles of garbage are mounting up. Not only are popular orbits becoming full, but space debris poses a threat to future missions. At the recent Space19+ council in Seville, ESA agreed to fund the ClearSpace-1 Mission. A four-armed robotic collector will target a piece of junk called Vespa that has been in orbit 800km above the Earth since 2013. ESA hopes that ClearSpace-1 will pave the way for a wide-reaching clear-up operation.

And as we’re all preparing for our Christmas feasts, I will leave you with this cute video of Elmo from Sesame Street talking to NASA astronaut Leland Melvin about space food:

GoffW will be back in orbit this time next week with an out-of-this-world Christmas edition. In the meantime, enjoy your week on Earth!