You Don’t Need a Spaceship to Grow ‘Strangely Small’ Martian Turnips

In the historical imagination, astronomers peered through telescopes, and photon intelligence flooded in at the speed of light. Taking what they can get, they passively receive information about distant stars and planets. These objects are fixed and their condition cannot be adjusted.

But that’s not how all astronomy works. For example, planetary and exoplanet scientists don’t just wait for the data to come to them: They also build miniature versions of other places using convenient geological landscapes, gravel crushers and simulation chambers on Earth. In these simulations, they see, feel, and manipulate worlds – or at least a metaphor for them – in an attempt to decipher parts of the universe they will likely never visit.

In creating abstract concrete and untouchable physics, they created not only simulations but also ways to conceive of these planets as actual locations.

“Throughout science, we always argue by comparison,” says Pascal Lee of the Mars and SETI institutes. “And so there’s something very fundamental to the approach to using analogs.”

Their method is in keeping with a scientific tradition that values ​​both laboratory research and direct contact with nature.

“It really makes a lot of sense why planetary scientists, whose phenomena are dismissed in time and space, would think that,” said Lisa Messeri, an anthropologist at Yale University. Simulation and replication will be how they can still study things far away,” says the author of the book “Put in Outer Space,” “because that’s what science has been doing for hundreds of years.”

The most direct arrow between this world and other worlds is the “terrestrial analogue,” a physical location on Earth that resembles some aspect of another world—usually the moon or Mars. That association could be in the form of a geological formation, like a lava tube or a dune, or it could be an entire region with a Moon or Mars flair, like Atacama Desert in Chile or volcanoes in Hawaii.

Dr. Lee runs Project Haughton-Mars, a similar research facility on Devon Island, a barren, uninhabited Arctic outpost in Nunavut, Canada. “There are a bunch of features that are similar to what we see on the moon and on Mars,” he said.

The island is eternal and dry, with valleys and canyons, and boasts a 14-mile-wide crater left over from a cosmic impact. It’s about the same size as Shackleton Crater at the Moon’s south pole, where NASA plans to send astronauts this decade.

In dozens of field campaigns, the Haughton research station has provided a permanent location where scientists can pretend to be on the moon or Mars, study similar geology, test equipment for future tasks and train the people involved.

It’s a turnkey operation, though he notes it’s not like an Airbnb that anyone can show up and use, says Dr. Lee. A core habitat facility evolved into a series of tents for geology, biology, medicine, and administrative and repair work. A greenhouse stands alone, while ATVs and Humvees assist with travel and driver simulation.

Dr. Lee spent 23 consecutive summers at the facility, eating cold canned sardines on day trips away from the main camp. But in 2020 and 2021, the pandemic forced him to skip his annual journeys to other worlds on Earth. He misses simplicity and isolation.

“When you are there, you are the population of Devon Island,” said Dr. Lee, like a lonely astronaut.

There are times, however, when scientists don’t need an analogue: They can take it home as a simulated substance, or as matter that resembles the surface of the moon or Mars.

For example, Mars is covered with sand and dust known as regolith. It makes travel difficult and can also block solar panels, clog filters, and capture moving parts. To determine how the robots, power supplies and other hardware will withstand the rigors of the red planet, scientists must test them with something similar before they make their journey.

That’s why, in 1997, NASA developed a dusty substance called JSC-Mars 1, based on data from the Viking and Pathfinder missions. It is made from materials found on the cinder-cone volcano Pu’u Nene in Hawaii. There, lava once oozed into water, eventually forming regolith-esque particles.

NASA scientists then refined the material, while preparing the Mars Phoenix lander, and built the Mars Mojave Simulant. It is derived from lava deposits of the Saddleback Volcanic Formation in the Mojave Desert in California.

However, the testing process wasn’t so easy: Phoenix collected samples of the frozen Martian soil in 2008.”sticky, ” In NASA parlance, to move from breaking news to an analytical tool. A year later, the Spirit rover is trapped in the sand, forever. Its robotic sibling, Opportunity, was lost when a dust storm blanketed its solar panels, a fate that also thwarted the more recent InSight mission.

Today, private companies use NASA data and formulas for private supplies of simulators. This “add to cart” version is included in science fair projects, alien cement and otherworldly gardening soil. Mark Cusimano, the founder of one such company, Mars Garden, says that cultivating Saddleback’s earthy red planet victory garden is his hobby. It’s satisfying, he says, to plant “an odd little turnip or carrot in it.”

Wieger Wamelink, an ecologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, took that work further with Project “Food For Mars and Moon”, growing crops such as peas and potatoes. He is currently working on a complete agricultural system, including bacteria, earthworms, and human excrement. The idea, says Dr. Wamelink, is “to plant boldly where no tree has been planted before”. Today, Mars on Earth. Tomorrow, perhaps, is Mars.

Mimicking the more exotic spots in the solar system has to do some work, so scientists often turn to simulation chambers – essentially test tubes in which they reproduce the world’s conditions. is different. The idea goes back to the 1950s, when a military scientist brought to the United States from Nazi Germany by Nazi Germany pioneered the use of low-pressure chambers sometimes called “Mars Jars” to learn about whether biology can survive under Martian conditions.

Today, researchers like Tom Runčevski of Southern Methodist University in Dallas are looking at another site: Titan, a moon of Saturn, the only world in the solar system other than Earth that currently has stationary liquid objects on its surface.

“I personally always talk about how hostile and terrifying Titan is,” Dr. Runčevski said. Lake and sea swim with ethane. It snows benzene, and rains methane. But if you look up through the haze, you will see the rings of Saturn.

Although a European space probe, Huygens, parachuted to its surface in 2005, Titan’s great hostility overall is hard to fathom for a hospitable planet. like this planet. Dr. Runčevski said: “Titan is a world. “It’s very difficult to study a world from Earth.”

But he’s been trying, having created in his lab what he calls “Titan in a Vial”.

You won’t see Saturn’s rings from the bottom of Dr. Runčevski’s jar. But you will learn about the organic compounds and crystals that occupy its most famous moon. Honestly, inside the vials – test tubes – Dr. Runčevski would drip a drop or two of water, and then freeze it to mimic a tiny version of Titan’s core. He would add a few drops of ethane, which would immediately condense, forming small lunar lakes. Then he’ll add in other organic compounds of interest, like acetonitrile or benzene. He would then suck the air out and set the temperature with Titanium, around minus 292 degrees Fahrenheit.

NASA is planning to return to Titan, launch a nuclear-powered quadcopter called Dragonfly in 2027. By observing crystals and structures forming in his vial, Dr. Runčevski hopes to help scientists interpret what they see when the robotic explorer arrives in 2034. “We can’t. send a full lab,” he said, so they have to rely partly on Earth’s labs.

In a laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, Sarah Hörst works similarly to those of NASA and Dr. Runčevski, including simulating Titan. But her test tubes also stretch to simulate hypothetical exoplanets, or worlds orbiting distant stars.

Dr. Hörst initially shied away from alien planets, because the specifics were few and far between. “I am spoiled from the solar system,” she recalls thinking. But a colleague convinced her to start mimicking the theory world. “We put together this matrix of possible planets,” she said. Their fictitious atmospheres are mostly hydrogen, carbon dioxide, or water, and they range in temperature from about minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit to 980 degrees Fahrenheit.

Her test tubes start with the main ingredients that make up the atmosphere, which are set at a certain temperature. She flows the mixture into a chamber the size of a soda bottle, and exposes it to energy — UV light or electrons from the plasma — that breaks down the original molecules. “They run around in the chamber making new molecules, and some of those new molecules break down as well,” says Dr. Hörst. That cycle repeats until the power source is cut off. Sometimes, that process creates solid particles: an otherworldly haze.

Finding exoplanets capable of producing smog could help scientists point telescopes at spheres they can actually observe. In addition, the haze affects the surface temperature of the planet, making the difference between liquid water and ice or evaporating, and it can shield the surface from high-energy photons – both of which affect the habitability of the planet. The atmosphere can also provide the building blocks of life and energy – or not at all.

Despite her initial hesitations, Dr. Hörst became attached to the planets grown by her lab. They feel familiar, even if fictional. She can usually tell when she walks into the office what kind of test is running, because different plasmas glow different colors. “Oh, we have to do Titan today, because it’s purple,” or “We’re doing this particular exoplanet, which is blue,” she said.

Compared to the landscape of Devon Island, regolith simulators or even the moon in a test tube, the planets in Dr. Hörst’s lab lack physics. They do not represent a particular world; they have no form; they are just ethereal, unsupported atmospheres. But it makes perfect sense: The farther an astronomer wants to see from Earth, the fainter their creations become. Dr Messeri said: “I think the fact that the exoplanet simulations are more abstract is a stark reminder that these are not places you can go.

However, Dr. Hörst still recalls the days when her lab simulated wilting planets: After that, the room heated up the entire corner of the room. That little world, which does not exist exactly anywhere else, warms this world. You Don’t Need a Spaceship to Grow ‘Strangely Small’ Martian Turnips

Fry Electronics Team

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