A 21st century, space-age simulated Mars soil and one of the world's oldest food sources -- the potato -- have been joined in an experiment that will fly aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis when the STS-101 mission is launched later this month. The experiment, designed by Native American science students, will test how well the soil supports plant growth.
Students from Shoshone-Bannock High School on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in southeastern Idaho will compare the plants grown in the synthetic dirt on Earth with those that fly in space. The simulated soil, known as JSC Mars-1, closely resembles the red dirt found on the surface of Mars. The coarse powder -- about the color of cinnamon -- is similar to what scientists know about the color, density, grain size, porosity, chemical composition, mineralogy and magnetic properties of Martian soil.
Known as "Spuds in Space," the experiment will be the first test of the soil simulant as a medium for growing plants in space. It also marks the second time Native American students have flown an experiment on the Shuttle. The first Native American science experiment in space -- also from Shoshone-Bannock High School -- flew on Discovery in 1998.
"As an educator, I am always looking for ways to get students interested in science and life," said Shoshone-Bannock science teacher Ed Galindo. "This Mars soil simulant is an exciting way for students from the Fort Hall Indian Reservation to keep getting excited about space, science and growth, both plant and student."
The potato experiment will be one of 10 experiments flying as part of the Space Experiment Module (SEM) program, an educational initiative to increase access to space for students from kindergarten through college. Since its first flight in 1995, SEM has allowed tens of thousands of students in the United States and other countries to fly their experiments in space. The SEM program is managed by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA.
"These simulants are natural materials that approximate, to the best of our current knowledge, the soils of the Moon and Mars," explained Dr. Carlton Allen of Lockheed Martin Space Operations, Houston, TX. He was part of the NASA Johnson Space Center, university and private industry teams that developed the simulated soils, including one -- JSC-1 -- based on lunar samples collected by Apollo crews. "Future sample return missions will bring us actual Mars soil and rock samples, which may pave the way for eventual human missions," Allen said. In the meantime, JSC Mars-1 is supporting a wide range of research, instrument design and engineering studies.
NASA encourages the use of its soil simulants in educational activities and is offering both JSC Mars-1 and JSC-1 to scientists, engineers and educators for only the cost of shipping. Those interested in obtaining samples of either simulant should send their request to the Office of the Curator, NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX 77058.
Additional information on the SEM program can be found at:
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