A research project at USM Gulf Park is about to soar into outer space. The experiment has been chosen by NASA to be tested by scientists aboard the International Space Station. The results could help answer the question: Can a living organism from Earth survive on Mars?
Tiny blue-green algae, known as cyanobacteria, are the newest inhabitants in one lab at USM Gulf Park. Their survival is the key to a unique experiment being conducted by USM Associate Professor Dr. Scott Milroy.
"We're just trying to prove life could live on Mars, that it's a survivable, habitable planet," said Milroy.
Milroy recently learned that his research project has won a coveted spot on the International Space Station. It was one of two projects nationwide that NASA has chosen for research aboard the Space Station.
"It's an amazing opportunity. Even as a kid, I always dreamed about doing some sort of experimentation for NASA and the fact that an oceanographer from South Mississippi would essentially have an experiment on the International Space Station literary is a once-in-a-lifetime chance," said Milroy.
When Milroy started the research project 18 months ago, he wanted to get young scientists involved. So he invited students from four high schools in Hancock County and Mobile to help him come up with some of the experiments. Those students actually helped design the salty solution for the algae to live and grow.
"They helped us design the actual recipe of the water that we used to simulate the extract that would come from Martian soils," said Milroy.
Milroy is not trying to prove whether extra-terrestrial life existed on Mars. But his research project could be a giant leap to discovering whether living organisms could survive on the Red Planet.
"So if we could get them to grow in that kind of environment, it would at least show that the Martian soil could support life from earth and an implication of whether or not we could eventually use Mars as kind of like a second home to earth organisms or colonize Mars. We're just chomping at the bit to really get rolling on it," he said.
"If the Martian soils can support living organisms, then the possibility exists maybe we don't have to take all of our food with us when we get there. We can grow it ourselves essentially on the Martian surface," Milroy added. "If you can get Earth organisms to live there, then it's even more possible and more probable that at some time in Martian history, there was life on the surface of Mars."
Milroy received a $278,000 grant from NASA to fund the project. The next step is to develop the equipment to transport the materials, including the sealed vials, smaller incubation chamber, LED light panels, and computer system to control the experiment.
The "Pioneering Mars Project" is expected to be transported by a private space vehicle to the Space Station late next year. The experiment itself should take about two weeks.
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