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Our men on Mars

Mike Dixon
Mike Dixon

Kitchen garden planted
If it’s true that an army marches on its stomach, so will a mission to Mars. Anyone making that pioneering interplanetary trip — sometime mid-century, predicts environmental biology professor Mike Dixon — will probably wonder about a basic question: Where’s my next meal coming from?
Part of the answer may rest inside a new state-of-the-art growth chamber being tested at U of G for life-support scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA). The chamber will be used in Europe to perfect plant growth techniques for keeping those long-distance voyagers fed and watered.
About half as long as a truck trailer and as high and wide as an adult’s outstretched arms, the climate-controlled chamber uses technology developed by Dixon and his associates here at Guelph. It provides lighting, water, nutrients and other components needed to grow food from scratch. Pop seedlings for tomatoes, beets or wheat into growth trays at one end of the chamber, place the trays onto an internal conveyor system and then wait for the prescribed weeks or months for ripe produce to roll out at the other end. Call it the Mars kitchen garden quips research associate and project manager Geoffrey Waters.
Designed by U of G scientists and built by Angstrom Engineering in Cambridge, Ont., the growth chamber looks like a grownup version of the 24 sealed chambers that occupy Guelph’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility. During the past 12 years, Guelph scientists have studied plant physiology, environmental analysis and sensor technology under the Space and Advanced Life Support Agriculture Program.
“We’re the current leaders in the world in biological life-support systems, especially food production and atmospheric revitalization,” says Dixon.
Waters has overseen construction and testing of the system, which will now be disassembled and shipped to Spain, where he will direct its installation and train users in a pilot facility in Barcelona. That’s where the ESA is developing its life-support system test facility, called the MELiSSA (Micro-Ecological Life-Support System Alternative) project. The equipment is part of the foundation for a hoped-for Mars voyage in 20 to 50 years.

Ralph Gellert
Ralph Gellert

‘Houston, we have water’

Guelph physicists Iain Campbell and Ralph Gellert have detected the first on-the-spot evidence of significant amounts of water still existing on Mars, probably the remnants of long-evaporated water bodies now bound up in soil and rock on the red planet.
Research analysis led by Campbell suggests that water is contained in mineral compounds in sulphur-rich soil just beneath the planet’s surface. That distinctive bright white material was churned up by the wheels of the Mars Spirit rover.
An X-ray spectrometer called an APXS on the rover’s arm captured data abut themineral compounds, and the analysis was completed by Campbell’s team, using computations provided by physicist Joanne O’Meara.
A paper submitted to the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets says the bright sulphur-rich material detected by Spirit’s APXS contains up to 16 pre cent water.

Ian Campbell
Ian Campbell

“No other instrument has done this. There’s evidence of water being plentiful in the distant past — the presence of certain metals, for example — but our evidence is about water right now,” says Campbell. Rather than existing in pools, that water is trapped in mineral compounds in the soil. He says iIt may be a remnant of oceans or pools that evaporated.
Co-author Prof. Ralf Gellert is the lead scientist for the current APXS, which he helped develop before arriving at Guelph. He is now principal investigator for an international group of scientists developing a new APXS for the Mars Science Laboratory mission scheduled for late 2009.
For that mission, MDA Corp. in Brampton is building the new instrument to be installed on a larger, souped-up rover. That device will arrive at Guelph this spring for testing and calibration before being delivered to NASA for installation on the new rover.
That’s the kind of device Spirit has already used to probe soil and rock samples during its three-year odyssey on Mars. Spirit and its twin rover, Opportunity, are being driven by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California. Gellert retrieves the data from NASA; he and his Guelph colleagues analyze the information for chemical composition of those samples.


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