From Antarctica to Mars: Growing Food in Extreme Conditions

Even those of us with the greenest thumbs are baffled by the idea of growing food in Antarctica. From my tiny desk plant to my neighbor’s cabbage patch, plants generally have the same requirements: soil, sun and water. At the southern end of the planet, however, those are all scarce commodities. Nonetheless, on April 5, 2018, the team managing the EDEN-ISS greenhouse at Neumayer III announced that they had harvested 8 pounds of salad greens, 18 cucumbers and 70 radishes. This project has implications beyond just Antarctica, from moderate climates on Earth to future Mars missions. Continue reading

So NASA Found Some New Exoplanets…Now What?

34412848-March-8-Planets-600x600-WEBYou have probably heard a lot of excitement over NASA’s recent announcement about the discovery of seven earth-size planets found orbiting around the star TRAPPIST-1, which is part of the constellation Aquarius.

These exoplanets are notable because they exist within the habitable zone of the star (nicknamed Goldilocks planets because this area is not too hot and not too cold) and are probably rocky with the potential to contain water on their surface.

A lot of the enthusiasm revolves around the hope that one of these planets might harbor extraterrestrial life or could be suitable for human inhabitants. Of course, many further observations must be made to determine if these scenarios are plausible, not to mention the huge advances in technology that would need to occur so we could actually verify the planetary conditions or send humans 40 light-years away. Continue reading

Curiosity Rover on Track for August 5 Landing

[wpvideo kN9KABwW]With the amazing, beyond belief success of the Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, the expectations are high for Curiosity. However, the task is far more difficult. With a much larger rover to land, the landing is more difficult. If you haven’t seen NASA’s “Seven Minutes of Terror” video, it’s worth a look.

Where will you be on August 5? Will you be awake and holding your breath and watching your twitter feed—looking for the first news of a successful landing from NASA?

A Cure for 1970s-era Sci-Fi Special Effects: NASA’s Image of the Day Gallery

Earth viewed from spaceI enjoy science fiction (sci-fi) movies and television shows and include the original Star Wars trilogy in my top ten list of favorite movies—certainly Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back but less so the Return of the Jedi simply because I find the ewoks more annoying than cute. This choice in entertainment was probably imprinted upon me at an early age. At age 7, I saw Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope as my first movie in a movie theater, and my brothers and I had piles of Star Wars-related toys. Also, I remember watching reruns of the original Star Trek but only when we could get grainy reception of a distant television station. I watched the original Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who during the Tom Baker years and even Pigs in Space on The Muppet Show. It was the late 1970s and 1980s, and I was surrounded by images of space travel, albeit the poor-quality, often cheesy sci-fi images typical of that era.
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Worms from Heaven and Hell

C. elegans were recently part of an experiment on the International Space Station.

Worms from the heights of space and the depths of the earth were in the news last week, one well-known species soaring to the heavens as part of a space flight experiment and a previously undiscovered species revealing the surprising extent of multicellular life in the hidden depths of earth.

The Worm from the Heavens
Caenorhabditis elegans perhaps qualifies as the most well-known of all worms. This 1mm roundworm, is a staple model organism in molecular biology. It’s easy to grow and store, possesses a simple neuronal network, and is transparent, making it easy to study cell differentiation and development. It was the first multicellular organism to have its genome sequenced, and the developmental fate of all its somatic cells has been studied. In some ways we know C. elegans better than we know ourselves.
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Analogues

People who know me well have, at some point, heard me hold forth on the subject of Antarctica. It’s a passion of mine, though I’ve never been there. The forgotten continent is like the Sirens, pulling those who dare to trespass upon the ice back to one of the bleakest places on Earth.

I have consumed many accounts of life there, and have configured my internet services to deliver me news reports that deliver little crumbs of information. Anything that mentions Antarctica crosses my screen.

My fascination derives from boyhood dreams of space. Young visions of piloting starships and traversing Martian landscapes – visions of adventure, glory, and alien encounters – shattered in daylight on a January day in 1986 as I sat cross-legged on an elementary school gymnasium floor. It would be years before I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, but watching the Challenger disintegrate into a fiery end, I immediately understood one of its central lessons: space is not glamorous, glorious, or any more alien than many of the places on our planet. Space is cold, unemotional, and unforgiving. It is intolerant of error, and it is lonely. And despite these things, it is where any future humans can hope to have must lie.

I will never go into orbit, but Antarctica, that’s the next best thing. Cold. Unforgiving. Intolerant of error. Nearly devoid of life except that which we import and resupply, it is where we troubleshoot the logistical problems of sustaining remote and isolated human colonies. Having spread across six other continents, it is our last terrestrial frontier.

No, I will never float among celestial bodies and listen to the low murmur of the universe rippling deep in the dark silence of space. But there is another place where we pursue science, a place closer to home, where I can be cold and alone and maybe catch a stray shard of a broken childhood dream.