Posts Tagged ‘Mars’

By Jeffrey Kluger

If you’re traveling to Mars, you’re going to have to bring a lot of essentials along — water, air, fuel, food. And, let’s be honest, you probably wouldn’t mind packing some beer too. A two-year journey — the minimum length of a Mars mission — is an awfully long time to go without one of our home planet’s signature pleasures.

Now, Anheuser-Busch InBev, the manufacturer of Budweiser, has announced that it wants to bring cosmic bar service a little closer to reality: On Dec. 4, the company plans to launch 20 barley seeds to space, aboard a SpaceX rocket making a cargo run to the International Space Station (ISS). Studying how barley — one of the basic ingredients in beer — germinates in microgravity will, the company hopes, teach scientists a lot about the practicality of building an extraterrestrial brewery.

“We want to be part of the collective dream to get to Mars,” said Budweiser vice president Ricardo Marques in an email to TIME. “While this may not be in the near future, we are starting that journey now so that when the dream of colonizing Mars becomes a reality, Budweiser will be there.”

Nice idea. But apart from inevitable issues concerning Mars rovers with designated drivers and who exactly is going to check your ID when you’re 100 million miles from home, Budweiser faces an even bigger question: Is beer brewing even possible in space? The answer: Maybe, but it wouldn’t be easy.

Start with that first step Budweiser is investigating: the business of growing the barley. In the U.S. alone, farmers harvest about 2.5 million acres of barley per year. The majority of that is used for animal feed, but about 45% of it is converted to malt, most of which is used in beer. Even the thirstiest American astronauts don’t need quite so much on tap, so start with something modest — say a 20-liter batch. That’s about 42 pints, which should get a crew of five through at least two or three Friday nights. But even that won’t be easy to make in space.

“If you want to make 20-liters of beer on Earth you’re going to need 100 to 200 square feet of land to grow the barley,” wrote Tristan Stephenson, author of The Curious Bartender series, in an email to TIME. “No doubt they would use hydroponics and probably be a bit more efficient in terms of rate of growth, but that’s a fair bit of valuable space on a space station…just for some beer.”

Still, let’s assume you’re on the station, you’ve grown the crops, and now it’s time to brew your first batch. To start with, the barley grains will have to go through the malting process, which means soaking them in water for two or three days, allowing them to germinate partway and then effectively killing them with heat. For that you need specialized equipment, which has to be carried to space and stored onboard. Every pound of orbital cargo can currently cost about $10,000, according to NASA, though competition from private industry is driving the price down. Still, shipping costs to space are never going to be cheap and it’s hard to justify any beer that winds up costing a couple hundred bucks a swallow.

The brewing process itself would present an entirely different set of problems — most involving gravity. On Earth, Stephenson says, “Brewers measure fermentation progress by assessing the ‘gravity’ (density) of the beer. The measurement is taken using a floating hydrometer. You’re not going to be doing that in space.”

The carbonation in the beer would be all wrong too, making the overall drink both unsightly and too frothy. “The bubbles won’t rise in zero-g,” says Stephenson. “Instead they’ll flocculate together into frogspawn style clumps.”

Dispersed or froggy, once the bubbles go down your gullet, they do your body no favors in space. The burp you emit after a beer on Earth seems like a bad thing, but only compared to the alternative — which happens a lot in zero-g, as gasses don’t rise, but instead find their way deeper into your digestive tract.

The type of beer you could make in space is limited and pretty much excludes Lagers — or cold-fermented beer. “Lager takes longer to make compared to most beers, because the yeast works at a lower temperature,” says Stephenson. “This is also the reason for the notable clarity of lager: longer fermentation means more yeast falls out of the solution, resulting in a clearer, cleaner looking beer. Emphasis on ‘falls’ — and stuff doesn’t fall in space.”

Finally, if Budweiser’s stated goal is to grow beer crops on Mars, they’re going about the experiment all wrong. Germinating your seeds in what is effectively the zero-g environment of the ISS is very different from germinating them on Mars, where the gravity is 40% that of Earth’s — weak by our standards, but still considerable for a growing plant. Budweiser and its partners acknowledge this possibility and argue that the very purpose of the experiment is to try to address the problem.

Thanks to Pete Cuomo for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.


By Jennifer Frazer

In addition to irritatingly lodging themselves everywhere from shower grout to the Russian space station Mir, fungi that live inside rocks in Antarctica have managed to survive a year and half in low-Earth orbit under punishing Mars-like conditions, scientists recently reported in the journal Astrobiology. A few of them even managed to cap their year in Mars-like space by reproducing.

Why were they subjected to such an ordeal? Scientists have concluded over the past decade that Mars (which like Earth is about four and a half billion years old) supported water for long periods during its first billion years, and they wonder if life that may have evolved during that time may remain on the planet in fossilized or even fresh condition. The climate back then was more temperate than today, featuring a thicker atmosphere and a more forgiving and moist climate.

But how do you search for that life? Using life that exists in what they believe is this planet’s closest analogue, a team of scientists from Europe and the United States hoped to identify the kind of biosignatures that might prove useful in such a search, while also seeing if the Earthly life forms might be capable of withstanding current Mars-like conditions.

Which is to say, not nice.

The temperature on Mars fluctuates wildly on a daily basis. The Mars Science Laboratory rover has measured daily swings of up to 80°C (that’s 144°F), veering from -70°C(-94°F) at night to 10°C(50°F) at Martian high noon. If you can survive that, you also have to get past the super-intense ultraviolet radiation, an atmosphere of 95% carbon dioxide (the effect of which on humans was vividly illustrated at the end of Total Recall), a pressure of 600 to 900 Pascals (Earth: 101,325 Pascals), and cosmic radiation at a dose of about .2mGy/day (Earth: .001 mGy/day). I don’t know about you, but Mars is not my first vacation choice.

And it’s probably not Cryomyces antarcticus’s either, in spite of the extreme place it calls home. Cryomyces antarcticus and its relative Cryomyces minteri – the two fungi tested independently in this study — are members of a group called black fungi or black yeast for their heavily pigmented hulls that allow them to withstand a wide variety environmental stresses. Members of the group somewhat notoriously turned up a few years ago in a study that found two species of the group commonly live inside dishwashers in people’s homes (they were opportunistic human pathogns, but most humans are immune to them). But most of these fungi live quietly in the most extreme environments on earth.

The particular black fungi used in this experiment, generally considered the toughest on the planet, live in tiny tunnels of their own creation inside Antarctic rocks. This is apparently the only place they can grow without being annihilated by the crushing climate and blistering ultraviolet radiation of Antarctica. Antarctica also happens to be the place on Earth most similar – although still not particularly similar, as you have seen — to our friendly neighborhood Red Planet. This endurance has made both black fungi and their neighbors the lichens popular test pilots for Mars-like conditions on the international space station.

For example, lichen-forming fungi that create the common and beautiful orange Xanthoria elegans and also Acarospora made the same trip to the ISS previously, in a European module of the International Space Station called EXPOSE-E. Both survived the experience, and Acarospora even managed to reproduce.

But this seems to be the first time a non-lichen forming fungus has received the ISS treatment.

These particular two fungi – Cryomyces antarcticus and Cryomyces minteri – were collected from the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica in Southern Victoria Land, supposedly the most Mars-like place on Earth. They were isolated from dry sandstone onto a plate of fungus food called malt extract agar. This gelatinous disc was then dried along with the fungus living on it inside a dessicator, and sent into space like that.

Each colony was about 1mm in diameter, and each yeast cell in it was 10 micrometers in size. Like most black yeast/fungi, they have a dark outer wall.

The scientists also tested an entire community of “cryptoendolithic” organisms – those that live secretly inside rocks, including not just fungi but also rock-dwelling blue-green algae – by testing whole fragments of rocks collected on Battleship Promontory in Southern Victoria Land, Antarctica. The various organisms live in bands of varying color and depth within 1 centimeter of the rock surface.

The fungi were launched into space in February 2008 and returned to Earth on September 12, 2009. During that time they were placed in a bath of gasses as similar as possible to the atmosphere of Mars and exposed to simulated full Martian UV radiation, one-thousandth Martian UV, or kept in the dark. They also endured the cosmic background radiation of space and temperature swings between -21.7°C and 42.9°C – much warmer than Mars, but the best that could be done. Control samples remained in the dark on Earth.

Once back on Earth, the colonies and rock samples were rehydrated. Their appearance had not changed during their voyage. They were then tested for viability by diluting them in water and plating the resulting solution to see how many new colonies formed. They also estimated the percentage of cells with undamaged cell membranes by using a chemical that can only penetrate damaged cell membranes.

The scientists found that the black yeast’s ability to form new colonies was severely impaired by its time on “Mars”, but it was not zero. When kept in the dark on the ISS, about 1.5% of C. antarcticus was able to form colonies post-exposure, while only .08% of C. minteri could. Surprisingly, those exposed to .1% of Mars UV did better, with 4-5 times more surviving: just over 8% for C. antarcticus and 2% for C. minteri. Perhaps the weak radiation stimulated mutations or stress-response proteins that might have helped the fungi somehow.

With the full force of Martian radiation, the survival rates were about the same as for those samples kept in the dark, which is to say, nearly nil. By comparison, about 46% of control C. antarcticus samples kept in the dark back on Earth yielded colony forming units, while only about 17% of C. minteri did. Not super high rates, but still much higher than their space-faring comrades.

On the other hand, the percentage of cells with intact cell membranes was apparently much higher than the number that could reproduce. 65% of C. antarcticus cells remained intact regardless of UV exposure, while C. minteri’s survival rates fluctuated between 18 and 50%, again doing better with UV exposure than in the dark. Colonized rock communities yielded the highest percentage of intact cells of any samples when kept in the dark – around 75%, but some of the lowest when exposed to solar UV, with just 10-18 % surviving intact.

What explains this apparent survival discrepancy between being alive and being able to reproduce? It may be that the reproductive apparati of the fungi are more sensitive to cosmic radiation than their cell membranes and walls, the authors suggest.

The authors’ results also suggest to them that DNA is the biomolecule of choice to use to search for life on Mars, as it, like the cell membranes, survived largely intact even in cells that could no longer reproduce.

Although Mars-based life may not use DNA genetic material, then again, it just might. It certainly seems to have worked well for us here on Earth.

Even though few of the fungi exposed to Mars-like conditions survived well enough to reproduce, in all cases, at least a fraction did. Perhaps that is the material thing. A similar previous experiment showed one green alga, Stichococcus, and one fungus, Acarospora were able to reproduce after a very similar trip on the space station. Another experiment with the bacterium Bacillus subtilis found that up to 20% of their spores were able to germinate and grow after Mars-like exposure. Theoretically, it only takes one or two to hang on and adapt to these conditions to found a whole lineage of Mars-tolerant life (the major reason, by the way, for NASA’s Planetary Protection Program).

On the other hand, some have suggested that long-term survival of Earthly life is impossible on Mars. Given the extremely low reproductive ability after just 1.5 years, this study did nothing to undermine that idea either.

But all of our studies have tested life that evolved on Earth. What about life that evolved on Mars? There’s just no telling how similar or dissimilar such creatures — supposing they exist or ever existed – might be.

by Alfredo Carpineti

On Sunday, January 24, NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity reached 12 Earth years on the surface of Mars, having landed on the same day in 2004.

It was budgeted to last 90 days, with a lifespan of a few months, before it was thought its solar panel would be covered in dust and stop working. But thanks to a number of factors, including wind on Mars, the tenacious rover has been able to endure the harsh Martian environment for much, much longer.

The rover has begun to show its age, becoming more difficult to maneuver and having memory storage problems. Also, two of its scientific instruments have now stopped functioning completely. Problems aside, though, Opportunity continues to produce an abundance of science.

Opportunity is currently exploring a region rich in clay minerals that would have formed in wet conditions. The area is called Marathon Valley, since it’s 42 kilometers (26 miles) – the Olympic marathon distance – from Opportunity’s landing site in Eagle Crater.

“With healthy power levels, we are looking forward to completing the work in Marathon Valley this year and continuing onward with Opportunity,” Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas said in a statement.

The rover is currently removing surface crust from rocks in the valley, and the texture and composition are being examined with the use of its robotic arm.

The Martian winter started in January, so the solar energy that the rover is currently receiving is significantly lower than usual. The team positioned the rover in a more favorable sun-facing orientation, which has increased the amount of power the solar panels are generating, allowing for power-consuming operations like drilling and rock-grinding.

“Opportunity has stayed very active this winter, in part because the solar arrays have been much cleaner than in the past few winters,” said Callas.

The rover is fully funded until the end of 2016, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is currently working on the next extension proposal. In the last review, Opportunity received the highest rating of any ongoing Mars mission.

Mars exists on Earth…well, at least the closest thing to Mars.

According to CNN, the Concordia research station in Antarctica sits on a plateau that is 3,200 meters above sea level and for about four months every year it is engulfed in complete darkness.

Those who live in the research station live in complete isolation. In fact, CNN reports that the nearest human beings from the station can be found about 372 miles away, making the place more remote than the International Space Station.

And yet, 16 dedicated scientists call the research center home for an entire year.

This is because long time confinement, abnormal day and light cycles, extremely dry air, low oxygen levels, and limited supplies make Mars-like training possible at the research center.

And it will help people get ready for the human race’s eventual voyage to Mars.

“By watching how the human body and mind adapts in Antarctica, we can plan and predict what would happen in space,” Alex Kumar, a doctor with the National Institute for Health Research, told CNN.

IT SOUNDS ALMOST like a late ’90s sci-fi flick: NASA sends a spacecraft to an asteroid, plucks a boulder off its surface with a robotic claw, and brings it back in orbit around the moon. Then, brave astronaut heroes go and study the space rock up close—and bring samples back to Earth.

Except it’s not a movie: That’s the real-life idea for the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which NASA announced today. Other than simply being an awesome space version of the claw arcade game (you know you really wanted that stuffed Pikachu), the mission will let NASA test technology and practice techniques needed for going to Mars.

The mission, which will cost up to $1.25 billion, is slated to launch in December 2020. It will take about two years to reach the asteroid (the most likely candidate is a quarter-mile-wide rock called 2008 EV5). The spacecraft will spend up to 400 days there, looking for a good boulder. After picking one—maybe around 13 feet in diameter—it will bring the rock over to the moon. In 2025, astronauts will fly NASA’s still-to-be-built Orion to dock with the asteroid-carrying spacecraft and study the rock up close.

Although the mission would certainly give scientists an up-close opportunity to look at an asteroid, its main purpose is as a testing ground for a Mars mission. The spacecraft will test a solar electronic propulsion system, which uses the power from solar panels to pump out charged particles to provide thrust. It’s slower than conventional rockets, but a lot more efficient. You can’t lug a lot of rocket fuel to Mars.

Overall, the mission gives NASA a chance at practicing precise navigation and maneuvering techniques that they’ll need to master for a Mars mission. Such a trip will also require a lot more cargo, so grabbing and maneuvering a big space rock is good practice. Entering lunar orbit and docking with another spacecraft would also be helpful, as the orbit might be a place for a deep-space habitat, a rendezvous point for astronauts to pick up cargo or stop on their way to Mars.

And—you knew this part was coming, Armageddon fans—the mission might teach NASA something about preventing an asteroid from striking Earth. After grabbing the boulder, the spacecraft will orbit the asteroid. With the added heft from the rock, the spacecraft’s extra gravity would nudge the asteroid, creating a slight change in trajectory that NASA could measure from Earth. “We’re not talking about a large deflection here,” says Robert Lightfoot, an associate administrator at NASA. But the idea is that a similar technique could push a threatening asteroid off a collision course with Earth.

NASA chose this mission concept over one that would’ve bagged an entire asteroid. In that plan, the spacecraft would’ve captured the space rock by enclosing it in a giant, flexible container. The claw concept won out because its rendezvous and soft-landing on the asteroid will allow NASA to test and practice more capabilities in preparation for a Mars mission, Lightfoot says. The claw would’ve also given more chances at grabbing a space rock, whereas it was all or nothing with the bag idea. “It’s a one-shot deal,” he says. “It is what it is when we get there.” But the claw concept offers some choices. “I’ve got three to five opportunities to pull one of the boulders off,” he says. Not bad odds. Better than winning that Pikachu.

mars 2

Dutch nonprofit Mars One has named 100 people who will remain in the running for a one-way trip to Mars, expected to leave Earth in 2024. Out of more than 200,000 people who applied, 24 will be trained for the mission and four will take the first trip, if all goes according to plan.

This round of eliminations was made after Norbert Kraft, Mars One’s chief medical officer, interviewed 660 candidates who said they were ready to leave everything behind to venture to Mars. The applications were open to anyone over age 18, because the organization believes its greatest need is not to find the smartest or most-skilled people, but rather the people most dedicated to the cause.

Even the astronauts on the International Space Station switch out every couple of months and go back home to family,” Kraft said. “In our case, the astronauts will live together in a group for the rest of their lives.”

Of the 50 men and 50 women selected for the next cut, 38 reside in the U.S. The next-most represented countries are Canada and Australia, both with seven. Two of the candidates were 18 when they applied in 2013; the oldest, Reginald George Foulds of Toronto, was 60.

By education, the group breaks down as: 19 with no degree, two with associates, 27 bachelors, 30 masters, one law degree, four medical degrees and seven PhDs. Thirteen of the candidates are currently in school, 81 are employed and six are not working.

Of the 16 candidates who live in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, 10 were eliminated, including a married couple. Those who remain are:

Daniel Max Carey, 52, a data architect who lives in Annandale, Va.

Oscar Mathews, 32, of Suffolk, Va., a nuclear engineer and Navy reservist.

Michael Joseph McDonnell, 50, of Fairfax, Va.

Laura Maxine Smith-Velazquez, 38, a human factors and systems engineer in Owings Mills, Md.

Sonia Nicole Van Meter, 36, a political consultant who recently moved from Austin, Tex., to Alexandria, Va.

Leila Rowland Zucker, 46, an emergency room doctor at Howard University Hospital in D.C.

Here’s how Mars One describes what comes next for these candidates:

“The following selection rounds will focus on composing teams that can endure all the hardships of a permanent settlement on Mars. The candidates will receive their first shot at training in the copy of the Mars Outpost on Earth and will demonstrate their suitability to perform well in a team.”

To fund the estimated $6 billion trip (for just the first four people), Mars One will be televising the remainder of the competition to narrow the group down to 24. Those 24 people will be divided into six teams of four that will compete to determine which group is most prepared to leave for Mars in 2024.

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.