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Spring 2007 - Mars

Destination Purdue > Spring 2007 - Mars

Goal of Mars trip research: pack light

By Jennifer Schaaf

What started out as an idea to grow plants for a trip to Mars has sprouted into much more. In 2000, Purdue Agricultural and Biological Engineering began a project funded by NASA to study the effect of gravity on fern spores.

Aeraj ul Haque

Photo provided by Marshall Porterfield

Aeraj ul Haque, a doctoral student in agricultural and biological engineering, enjoys a moment of weightlessness during a zero-gravity flight pattern on the “vomit comet,” a modified plane that provides brief, nearly weightless conditions.

By growing different kinds of plants in space, astronauts would be able to create valuable resources, such as oxygen, that they would otherwise have to haul along on the spacecraft. The initial idea was to grow crop systems in space to cut down on costs, said Marshall Porterfield, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering.

A trip to the red planet by space shuttle would take roughly 260 days, or more than eight months. The average adult needs about 1 1/2 liters of water a day. That water weighs 3 1/3 pounds. "It costs $10,000 to put one pound into space," said Porterfield. "Huge portions of the money would end up being food, water and oxygen." So water for just a single person for a single day in space would be $33,000.

The idea behind the project is to create crops in space that would not only recycle water, but also make oxygen and serve as food all at the same time. Just how close are we to growing crops in space?

Aeraj ul Haque, a doctoral student in agricultural and biological engineering and a member of Porterfield's project, says it's still about 20 to 25 years away if NASA continues to fund the project. Before anyone can start packing for the red planet, NASA has to finish building the space vehicle to get us there. But even if the blast-off to Mars is that far away, there is still work to be done now.

Porterfield and Haque's studies into growing crops in zero gravity may yield technology that can be applied to things inside our atmosphere. "We can study drugs, find out what genes cause diseases and we may be able to find cures," said Haque. "Not just in plants either, maybe in humans, too."

The research goes further than just growing plants in space. When plants are germinating, they polarize themselves, or use gravity to tell the roots to grow down and the leaves to grow up. Porterfield and his team are trying to figure out what would happen if they removed the gravity. Would the plant still know what to do?

To figure out what happens with gravity, the researchers hook up fern spores to a microchip and plug it into a computer. The chip is then turned different ways, and the chip reads how the fern spores react to having the gravitational pull changed. This chip, specific to biological engineering, can test 16 spores at the same time. The chips needed a special system to run, so the Purdue researchers also created all the instrumentation to read them.

All the work was on a very tight schedule, but the technology has made the research a lot easier. Alone, it can test 16 spores in less time than it took to test just one with old method, which involved a person with a probe testing individual spores. "Now we just have to load the fern spores, press a button and come back in 24 hours for the data," said Haque.

The spores went through three rounds of testing: twice on the ground and once on what is called the "vomit comet," a NASA airplane that provides a brief, nearly weightless environment. By conducting the research in weightlessness, the team got to see exactly what happens to the spores when there is no gravity. "We took the whole system, loaded up the fern spores and put it on a modified DC-9," said Porterfield. "It goes from 2 Gs to microgravity. It's kind of like the feeling you get when you hit the top of a hill, but it lasts for 20-30 seconds."

Both Porterfield and Haque got to take a turn on the vomit comet. "Not only did we do something that was amazing, we had a fun time doing it," said Haque.

The equipment was set up on the ground, so the team only had to make sure it kept running once they were airborne. Each member of the team got to take two tries at keeping their stomachs. When the G-force travels through your body, it has different effects on people, Porterfield said. All the Purdue team members held their cookies. "The first day of flight, when it starts to get fun, it's over," said Porterfield. "The second day we were all well-prepared, and did enjoy it more."