Montana State University

Spring 2017





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Mountains and Minds

Mission: Mars June 06, 2017 by Marshall Swearingen • Published 06/06/17

For an entire year, Carmel Johnston felt no wind on her face. Through the small porthole windows in the 36-foot diameter dome that she called home, she saw a desolate landscape of red-tinged rock. Her only communication with the outside world was email, with a 20-minute delay each way. She and her five crewmates ventured short distances from the dome, but only after encapsulating themselves in airtight suits.

She might as well have been on Mars. And that was the point.

Beginning August 28, 2015, Johnston, a soil scientist from Whitefish who earned a bachelor’s degree in 2011 and a master’s degree in 2013 from Montana State University’s Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, was commander of a mission to simulate a human expedition to the red planet. Called the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS Mission IV, the experiment was the longest and most intensive of its kind.

Members of the second HI-SEAS mission, which lasted for 120 days in 2014, are pictured in front of the dome they inhabited on the slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, with the moon and Mars visible in the sky.

Perched on a remote slope of the Mauna Loa volcano on the island of Hawaii, Johnston’s crew led an existence resembling that of Mark Watney, the fictional astronaut played by Matt Damon in the movie The Martian. Electricity came from solar panels. Water, every ounce of it, was precious. Dehydrated foodstuffs were rationed. The crew even grew vegetables in compost made from food scraps and human waste.

Unlike Watney, Johnston’s HI-SEAS crew, the fourth of what is now five crews, was subjected to nearly continuous monitoring, as researchers probed the effects of isolation and close-quarters cohabitation on their well-being. Crew members buzzed off square-inches of their hair for hormone analyses, wore a variety of sensors, and each day answered multiple questionnaires about their health, mood and social interactions.

The results of the experiment could help humans go to Mars one day. For now, that remains the stuff of Hollywood films but the HI-SEAS experiment is just one example of how the lines between science fiction and reality have begun to blur. NASA has plans to actually send humans to Mars in the 2030s—an ambitious goal, but one that’s increasingly imaginable because of the work of Johnston and other MSU alumni, faculty and students.

 

With its polar icecaps, glacier-carved mountains and vast deserts resembling the American Southwest, Mars has long beckoned space explorers. Compared to Earth’s nearest neighbor, Venus, which swirls with scalding clouds of sulfuric acid, the red planet’s thin, chilly atmosphere of carbon dioxide is relatively inviting. Martian temperatures can plummet to minus 200 degrees but warm to a balmy 70 degrees. Water, in the form of buried ice, is more abundant than was once thought.

Much of what is known about Mars is the product of a NASA rover called Curiosity, an SUV-sized robot that has trekked some 10 miles, skirting canyons and sand dunes in a Martian crater and crawling up the broad slopes of 18,000-foot-tall Mount Sharp. Equipped with 17 cameras, a drill and a laser for measuring the chemistry of Martian rock and soil, and other instruments, Curiosity has returned to Earth stunning images and a wealth of information.

Landing Curiosity on Mars in 2012 ranks among the Space Age’s greatest stunts. After zooming through space for more than eight months, the Curiosity spacecraft entered the Martian atmosphere at supersonic speeds and homed in on its 12-mile-wide target. Because radio signals, traveling at the speed of light, take up to 20 minutes to reach Mars (hence the delay on HI-SEAS experiment emails), the landing sequence was entirely pre-programmed and out of direct human control. Using first a parachute and then a jetpack to slow its descent, the spacecraft hovered 60 feet above the Martian plains and deftly lowered the rover to the ground, before blasting away.

Those minutes were like a roller coaster ride for Jaime Waydo, who grew up on a Gallatin County farm and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from MSU’s College of Engineering in 2000. She began working on Curiosity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in 1999, first as an intern and eventually as the lead engineer on the team that designed the rover’s wheels and suspension system.

Together with the hundreds of other NASA engineers and scientists, Waydo waited for Curiosity to beam its first images back to Earth, confirming that the rover had survived the landing. When a photo flashed on the screen, showing that the rover’s wheels had unfolded beneath it exactly as they were supposed to, “I breathed a huge sigh of relief,” Waydo said.

Casey Stedman, commander of the HI-SEAS II mission, leads a geological expedition simulating what future travelers to Mars might experience.

As Curiosity began its march across the crater, snapping photos of the landscape and drilling and zapping rocks, it wasn’t long before the rover accomplished its primary mission. It determined that the crater had once been a stream-fed lake well-suited to hosting life, probably billions of years ago before solar radiation stripped away most of the planet’s atmosphere.
Curiosity also measured radiation levels and the composition of the atmosphere and gathered other information that could help NASA plan a human mission to Mars one day.

Waydo, now a chief engineer at Google, returns to Bozeman each year to speak to MSU students about her experiences. Sometimes she offers a design challenge, like designing the wheels for the next Mars rover, or gives advice for tackling job interviews. Often, she discusses the problem-solving mentality that she was immersed in at NASA.

“‘What is the thing we can solve today? Let’s go do that,’” she said. “‘What’s the thing we can solve tomorrow? Let’s do that.’ The Mars missions are built like that, where you’re solving these incremental pieces. Gradually, the pieces are coming together, toward putting humans on Mars.”

Across the university, as students and faculty develop improved space computers, cutting-edge optics and adaptive vaccines, they are making new pieces that could fit into the puzzle of how to help humans go to Mars one day.

Curiosity’s success inspired computer science major Joe Whitney, of Helena, to join a dozen other MSU students in building their own Mars rover, of sorts, as part of a senior capstone project coached by professors in multiple engineering disciplines. In May, they’ll take the robot to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and compete against other teams in the Robotic Mining Competition. In an arena filled with simulated Martian soil, their rover will dig for buried “ice,” enacting how future Mars astronauts might harvest water.

“It’s exciting to see all the progress being made by Curiosity and other recent space missions,” Whitney said. Sending humans to Mars “seems more realistic now than ever.”

 

“Every time we look at Mars, I’d say I get more excited,” said Eric Boyd, an assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Boyd launched his career more than a decade ago by studying microbes in Yellowstone’s hot springs, funded by a “seed” grant from the Montana Space Grant Consortium at MSU. Today, when he thinks about the prospect of finding Martian life, “I get more optimistic,” he said.

For Boyd and others in his field of astrobiology, which inquires about the origin and evolution of all life in the universe, Mars may hold answers to their biggest questions: Does life as we know it exist anywhere besides Earth? Has life evolved in fundamentally different ways on different planets? And if so, what is life, really?

While Curiosity zaps rocks and looks for life’s chemical signatures, Boyd and others carry out the search for extraterrestrial organisms in another way: here on Earth, by seeking out environments so harsh that they resemble those found on Mars.

“People make discoveries on Earth on a daily basis that further expand the possibilities of where we are going to find life” in the solar system and beyond, said Boyd, who has received millions of dollars from NASA to study microbes in places as far-flung as the Arabian Peninsula.

In 2007, Boyd and a team of MSU researchers traveled to the mountains near Alberta’s Banff National Park, where they trekked through miles of rock talus to the glistening face of Robertson Glacier. There, they crawled under the glacier’s overhanging front, into dark caverns where glacial meltwater gathered in icy streams. They spooned up mud—made of rock ground into powder by the glacier’s grinding flow down the mountain—and flash-froze it in vials to take back to MSU.

Students in MSU’s College of Engineering build an autonomous robot that they will enter in NASA’s Robotic Mining Competition, which will be held at the Kennedy Space Center in May. There, the team will dig in simulated Martian soil to harvest buried rocks representing water ice.

In their lab, Boyd and his team found unique organisms in the mud. The microbes needed no sunlight, nor any other of the inputs that sustain most life on Earth. Instead, Boyd’s team determined the microbes were essentially eating rock, capturing energy released when the rock’s minerals interact with water. In the process, the microorganisms were releasing methane gas, “a biosignature for microbial life here on Earth,” according to Boyd.

“We were extremely surprised,” Boyd said.

The discovery could be likened, in degree, to British explorers stumbling upon the Inuit inhabitants of the Arctic in the 1700s. Although Boyd and his colleagues had known that such biochemical processes exist, their discovery marked the first time that anyone had observed microbes using that chemistry to survive in such a cold, dark environment.

Further study revealed that the rock-eating microbes supported other, more complex, organisms.

“You have this whole food web, just like any other ecosystem on the planet,” said Boyd. “These organisms are making a living in an environment that you’d think would be inhospitable and providing food that sustains more complex organisms.”

The discovery was even more exciting because it coincided with an announcement that NASA had found new evidence on Mars of mysterious plumes of methane—the same chemical generated by the rock-eating microbes at Robertson Glacier.

“You can see how it gets exciting really fast,” Boyd said. “On Mars, you’ve got mineral sources of energy; you’ve got water; you’ve got glaciers. Why couldn’t you have similar microbial communities?”

The cause of the Martian methane plumes remains a matter of speculation. But as Boyd and his team, which includes Mark Skidmore, an associate professor in MSU’s Department of Earth Sciences, have learned more about the hardy microbes they discovered a decade ago, they remain cautiously optimistic that similar life forms might one day be found on Mars.

“I’d almost be surprised to not find some evidence for life on Mars, if not active life then in the form of fossilized ancient life that is now extinct,” Boyd said.

Now, Boyd and his team are ramping up a NASA-funded study of glaciers in Iceland, where the volcanic rock more closely resembles that on Mars. From what they’ve seen so far, they anticipate that the project could further bolster the case that similar microbes exist in analogous environments on Mars.

When he considers what the discovery of life on Mars might look like, Boyd thinks of his students. Might they be leading their own labs, or working at NASA, when the first human footprints are laid down in the red dust, the Earth but a twinkle on the horizon?

“That’s why I think it’s the most exciting time yet to be studying astrobiology,” he said.

 

During her year in the dome on the Mauna Loa volcano, Johnston learned a few things that would come in handy on Mars. She learned to get by on one-minute showers once per week and laundry once per month. She learned to exercise in tight spaces, using a treadmill and an exercise bike. She learned to grow vegetables using water and no soil. (The cherry tomatoes were a welcome change from tomato powder, she said.)

Because they were actually on Earth, Johnston’s HI-SEAS crew didn’t face many of the more daunting challenges of a true voyage to Mars. They didn’t have to worry, for instance, about their eyesight deteriorating during prolonged periods of low gravity. Their water, while rationed, was delivered by a truck. They didn’t worry about running out of oxygen.

In MSU researcher Eric Boyd’s lab, doctoral student Melody Lindsay inoculates organisms collected in a thermal area of Yellowstone National Park. Organisms inhabiting Earth’s extreme environments provide clues about where life forms could be found on other planets such as Mars.

“Man, do we have to figure a lot of stuff out before going to Mars,” Johnston said. In other words, there’s no shortage of challenges for a new generation of engineers, scientists and medical professions.

But “you can’t just think of the engineering aspect of a trip to Mars,” Johnston said. “You also have to consider the human aspect”—the social and psychological factors involved in supporting a small team on an isolated voyage to a distant world. Studying those factors was the main purpose of the HI-SEAS IV experiment.

Johnston calls it “the ultimate experiment in coworker and room-mate selection.”

“Gone are the days of only selecting Type A, adrenaline-junkie fighter pilots” for space missions; nor would NASA ever send a crew entirely made up of engineers or scientists to Mars, Johnston said. “It takes all kinds of people, both in personality and profession, to make a trip successful.”

In addition to Johnston, the HI-SEAS crew was composed of two women and three men. They included an astrobiologist, a flight controller, an architect and others with a mix of expertise in medicine, journalism, engineering and physics.

They also had general skills and experiences that helped with day-to-day operations, Johnston said.

“You need people who can grow plants, treat water, ‘MacGyver’ just about anything, treat an injury or ailment, cook good food, and who aren’t a drag to be around,” she said.

Johnston picked up many of those skills at MSU, doing fieldwork with the Ewing Lab (a lab run by Stephanie A. Ewing, assistant professor in land resources and environmental sciences) in remote parts of Alaska for her master’s thesis. She had to learn to conduct experiments with limited resources, and those skills, it turned out, were a good match for the job at HI-SEAS.

Until further rounds of the experiment are finished and a final report is released, Johnston won’t know why she was selected as the mission commander. Until then, she isn’t permitted to talk in more detail about the conclusions of HI-SEAS, either. But she can offer practical advice to those dreaming of being the first to walk on Mars.

Get an advanced degree, Johnston recommends, probably a Ph.D., in a science or engineering field. Start thinking early on about getting the specialized training that astronauts receive. Be passionate about what you’re doing.

Throw in a bit of luck, in terms of your timing. And who knows, she said, “you may end up on another planet.” ■