Rocket engines as we know them have always produced propulsion by venting exhaust, which emerges at a high pressure as a result of combustion and causes an opposite reaction. In other words, whilst exhaust exits in one direction, the engine is propelled in the other.
This is in line with the principle of conservation of momentum; but the results of the EM Drive experiments suggest there may just be an exception to the rule.
The EM Drive, in theory, converts energy into thrust without emitting any sort of exhaust — bypassing the need for mass to be expelled in one direction in order to propel the rocket in the other.
Ever since its emergence in 2001, under Roger J. Shawyer of the small UK company known as Satellite Propulsion Research, the science behind this technology has been met with skepticism. Yet, in 2010, parallel developments in this area of were undertaken in China, where Professor Juan Yang reported the potential for electromagnetic propulsion to produce thrust in space without requiring combustion.
In early 2014, Dr. Harold White of NASA picked up on similar research and presented the idea at the Joint Propulsion Conference, explaining how propulsion was produced by magnetic fields in what is called a magnetohydrodynamic drive.
Photograph by Satellite Propulsion Research
Until now, no country had tested this technological phenomenon in a vacuum yet, despite it being the very environment in which it was claimed to function. Finally, this April, NASA tested the EM Drive in a vacuum and was able to produce thrust, confirming some of the claims about its potential.
The recent test also nullified some hypotheses which had suggested that thrust came from some minute form of heat convection — wherein a transfer of fluid or gas accompanies a transmission of heat as seen in the emission of fuel exhaust from modern day rockets.
With no stowaway fluids or gases causing accidental propulsion during the experiment, the science behind the EM drive has once again become a topic of debate. The technology appears to function as described, but remains without a clear explanation.
NASA’s EM drive may just be a piece of technology that truly accomplishes the impossible, however small the scale.
Despite all the excitement surrounding electromagnetic propulsion, the scientific community continues to deny its feasibility.
If the EM drive were to work as described, it would go against two of the most fundamental universal laws of physics: the conservation of energy, which states that you cannot create energy out of nothing, and the conservation of momentum, which states that any movement requires an equal and opposite movement to exist.
“It’s like saying you could get your car moving by sitting inside and pushing on the steering wheel” says Sean Carroll, physicist and cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology.
He adds that “the strongest bias we have is to believe things that we want to think are true”, highlighting the reason behind the countless EM drive rumours found both on the internet and in media.
In May, NASA officials confirmed Carroll’s words of caution, stating that “while conceptual research into novel propulsion methods by a team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston has created headlines, this is a small effort that has not yet shown any tangible results”.
Photograph by Satellite Propulsion Research
An important part of the uncertainty surrounding the experiments is that its measurements do not seem to be easily repeatable. When the drive creates propulsion, there is a flurry of thermal activity as metals expand and temperature varies, making results unpredictable and insignificant when compared to potential margin of error.
Before this technology is really considered a breakthrough, space agencies not only need to show evidence of repeatable measurements, but also need to demonstrate that it can be done at a much larger scale.
The future of space travel
If it were to be developed successfully, the EM Drive would not be powerful enough to enable travel at the speed of light, nor would it create a wormhole or bend space-time — at least not in any way that is currently proven.
However, the relationship between the EM Drive’s propulsion and quantum mechanics does indeed suggest that this technology could be groundbreaking not only in its use, but also in encouraging a new realm of knowledge for scientific study.
The bottom line is that the EM Drive is a curiosity which inspires both hope and skepticism as the scientific community eyes it with a “too good to be true” attitude, but still plans to continue pursuing the possibility of a new revolution in space travel.
Although many may regard this as an opportunity to begin our inevitable path towards Star Trek, there is still a long way to go.
Russia continues hostility as climate change melts ice caps
The chilling climate of arctic geopolitics in a time of global warming
June 3rd 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow
Photograph by Davide Monteleone
There are signs of climate change in nearly every aspect of our environment today, including the behaviour of the human civilisation.
Melting ice caps in the last 50 years have had a ripple effect on the world. A few decades ago, the media began highlighting concerns about shrinking polar bear habitats as a result of drastic climate change. Yet, in 2007, the hypothetical sea route known as the Northwest Passage was so devoid of ice that it was opened for shipping for the first time in recorded history, allowing a Norwegian cargo ship to successfully navigate the route in 2013 on a voyage from Vancouver to a port in Finland.
With foresight, the Russian government submitted a request to the United Nations in 2001 for permission to stake claim to a large swath of the Arctic. Even though the motion was rejected, Russia began moving submarines and aircraft through the region in a high profile manner. This activity sparked serious worries among other stakeholders in the Arctic, notably the Nordic countries, Denmark with its Greenland territory, and Canada.
Law and the Arctic Council
The Arctic is a rather difficult region to regulate, but is mostly covered by the UN Convention on Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS) and the Arctic Council. Comprised of representatives from eight member states, the Arctic Council primarily addresses environmental concerns and the socioeconomic well-being of local communities in the region. It is made up of The United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland.
In order to be compliant with the UNCLOS 1982, the territorial boundaries of Arctic Council nations must end 12 miles offshore, whilst their economic zones can extend up to 200 miles. The agreement also gives freedom of navigation through the region to all, an issue which is becoming increasingly relevant as melting ice actually opens up new trade routes for ships to sail through.
Photograph by the World Wild Fund
Commercial traffic through the Arctic has been growing significantly in the past decade, which creates the need for additional government presence in the region in order to provide security and safety. It is predicted to quadruple over the next twenty years as raw materials are shipped out in volume, construction materials are shipped in to support development, and melting ice leads to faster transit times.
The Arctic region is rich in natural resources, a trait that drives competition between nations in the same manner that has been seen throughout all of history. While Canada expects a growing output of minerals from its Arctic territories, much of the Arctic’s potential resources — including one third of the planet’s untapped oil and gas reserves — are not clearly owned by any member of the Arctic Council.
The council itself is intended to act as a barrier against any government establishing hegemony over the region, but increased Russian military presence, combined with Russian aggression in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia in past years, has made other Arctic nations cast a more serious eye on their northern coasts.
Whereas Iceland was seeking to establish better economic relations with Russia up until recently, it was discouraged by the war in Ukraine and Russia’s takeover of Crimea. This February, Russian bombers skirted along the Icelandic coast, further pushing Iceland into the grudging circle of Nordic nations against Russia.
Finland, a country whose older generation still recalls Russian and Soviet incursions during the first half of the 20th Century, is now questioning its security in the wake of recent events. This includes Russian military targeting Finnish research vessels in international waters, as well as repeated violations of Finnish airspace.
Likewise, Sweden is also growing wary of Russian activity, as seen by their efforts in pursuing a suspected Russian submarine that entered Swedish waters in the fall of 2014. Unlike other Nordic countries, neither Finland nor Sweden are members of NATO, but both recognise a need for increased security cooperation with their neighbors.
Norway made a show of strength its own response to Russia. Conducting an exercise called Joint Viking in the far northern Finnmark province, the Norway fielded more than 5,000 troops for the operation, making it the largest Norwegian military exercise since the Cold War. As a result, Russian navy was placed on high alert in the Arctic region, especially in areas bordering Norway and Finland.
Photograph by Reuters
Ironically, Norway and Iceland had both been warming their relationships with Russia in recent years. For Norway, this involved dismissing the notion that Russia is a threat to global security as it had been in the past, as well as a decommissioned Norwegian submarine base being rented to the Russian government.
On the other hand, Iceland had recently signed several agreements for economic and social cooperation, including the establishment of a joint center for collaborative development of geothermal energy. Now, it may be rolling back its willingness to work with Russia as it resumes a role similar to that of the Cold War years — when Iceland was the centre point of the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap (GIUK) that was patrolled to prevent Russian incursion into the North Atlantic.
The physical changes occurring in the Arctic are heralding a parallel transformation of economic, political, and social relationships in the region. This grand shaft, deemed the “respatialisation” of the north, is making the Arctic region less of a periphery and instead more of a functional, critical part of geopolitics. Whilst governments, private industry, and local communities in the north may experience increased prosperity as a result of melting ice caps, they will also require environmental stewardship to mitigate the risk of accidents and damages.
Russian commercial harbors along the country’s 10,000 mile coastline are being modernised, but investment in Russian military is also growing. Meanwhile, Canadian air patrols in the north have increased, and American military presence in Alaska continues to be marked by advanced missile testing ranges and regular deployment of paratroopers in frigid Arctic training grounds.
A cold future?
Despite the economic promise of the Arctic, it truly appears to be a case of geopolitical tension for the time being. The state of affairs is not one where Arctic Council members are collaborating for positive developments in the Arctic, but rather one where Russia has indicated its intentions to seek singular benefit and compete sternly against other Arctic stakeholders.
The gravity of the situation was further sealed last month by the emergence of a new Nordic defence agreement which calls for increased security cooperation against Russia in the far north. As in many other regions, it is now becoming clear that the key threat to peaceful economic cooperation in the Arctic is a solid alliance against Russian aggression.
As the northern landscape continues to morph into something navigable and inhabitable, geopolitics may dive in the opposite direction and leave an increasing amount of anxiety and hostility amid the chilling Arctic waters.
Earth surrounded by millions of satellites and scraps
With more and more space debris, how can we achieve sustainability?
May 19th 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow
Photograph by NASA
Sustainability is a fast-growing theme in our society, and one that will be of increasing importance as more and more humans venture into space.
Many headlines have highlighted the alarming accumulation of trash in our oceans, while societies far and wide fail to keep up with the cleaning of litter in cities and along highways. Considering all that we have discarded over the last few decades — plastics, metals, and other solid waste — the emptiness of space may strike one as pristine and untouched. Yet, wherever humanity goes, so waste follows.
The European Space Agency (ESA) claims that this rises into the millions when the smallest pieces are counted, but says that perhaps 29,000 of these are larger than 10 centimeters. Many of the smaller pieces of debris have already been re-entering the atmosphere at a rate of one per day, according to NASA.
Beyond simple debris, there are also over 2,500 satellites in orbit that are no longer being used, but are essentially husks of metal and circuitry with nowhere else to go.
Graphic by the European Space Agency (ESA)
Our planet’s gravitational pull keeps all of this debris strongly in orbit, and to push it further out would be a hefty endeavour.
Whilst the current amount of debris has already caused some issues — such as the International Space Station moving to avoid a deactivated Russian spacecraft, or the collision of two satellites in 2009 — it is worrisome to consider the future risk of this state of affairs. The Kessler syndrome, named for NASA employee Donald Kessler, was conceived as far back as 1978 to describe a dilemma where debris is so ubiquitous that it complicates or even prevents launching missions into space from Earth.
The accumulation of space debris is certainly an unsustainable practice. The NASA Orbital Debris Program Office is an example of our efforts to mitigate and understand the risks associated with increased space debris, but it still remains unclear if there are any real solutions to the problem.
There have been promising developments, however, best seen in cooperative ventures between the United States government and several private companies and organisations. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is associated with the Department of Defense, has launched the second phase of what it calls the Phoenix Project — a program that will use robotic spacecrafts to salvage parts from decommissioned satellites. In 2014, DARPA awarded contracts to eight private companies who will collaborate with the project.
Meanwhile, there has been innovative speculation on how to recycle spent fuel capsules, known as external tanks (ETs).
The Space Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group committed to encouraging human presence in space through government and private sector cooperation, has been championing an idea to recycle these capsules into storage spaces and even inhabitable structures. The foundation suggests that each tank is equivalent to an eleven-story building, and collecting several of them presents the opportunity to form a space station that competes with NASA’s space station Alpha as well as the joint American-Russian ISS.
There is even the suggestion of a “wet launch”, where the capsule would be outfitted with basic inhabitable architecture before being filled with fuel, leaving it empty but ready for use once discarded in orbit. Alternatively, these tanks could be melted down for reuse after recovering their leftover hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen reserves — over a metric ton of useful substances.
Graphic by the European Space Agency (ESA)
NASA has indicated that its capsules are free to be reclaimed by any organisation that has the means to collect and secure them. This places what is currently debris into a new category, effectively rebranding them as a commodity. These capsules could become space stations, greenhouses, or even industrial raw material. A hypothetical moon base, also advocated by the Space Frontier Foundation, could rely on these as primary structures, much in the way that shipping containers are employed in austere locales by the US military.
Smaller debris, however, are much less of a commodity. To be effectively collected, they would have to be gathered into a large clump by such potential machines as Switzerland’s CleanSpace One. In large groups, they could be used as a shield against radiation, or be melted down and shaped into something new.
In coming years, practicing sustainability in space will be crucial.
For governments, sustainability could mean lower costs of operation, improved safety of manned missions, and yet a growing need to develop difficult-to-enforce regulations. For private organisations, there may be more need to practice corporate sustainability alongside an attractive opportunity to profit from repurposing much of the debris.
In the long-term, it will remain important that human activity in space serves to benefit the population and environment of the planet, and that through sustainable practice we avoid becoming a danger to ourselves while already braving the many inherent dangers of space travel.
The science behind the European island’s geothermal resources
March 15th 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow
Photograph by Askja Energy
Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano violently erupted in April of 2010, making international headlines as it grounded international flights on both sides of the Atlantic for several weeks to come.
The tephra produced by the eruption interfered with flight traffic into late spring, but soon settled as the summer tourist season approached. Volcanic activity is commonplace in Iceland, including frequent tectonic changes, occasional smaller eruptions, and a plethora of hot springs and geysers. The tephra produced by past eruptions is usually swept northward by winds, but 2010 proved to be an exception. In centuries past, other Icelandic eruptions have certainly had worldwide effects, particularly in the late 1700s when the atmospheric effects of the eruption of Laki resulted in what the famous Benjamin Franklin, in contemporary writings, described as “the year without a summer”.
Since the 2010 eruption, however, Iceland has seen consistent tourism and expansion of nonstop flights from both Europe and North America. While tourist campaigns particularly emphasize the alluring beauty of Iceland’s volcanoes, the tumultuous landscape offers its patrons much more than just a claim to fame.
The geothermal island
Iceland has been relying on geothermal energy to provide for its needs for decades, and today it is a rare case of a society that is more dependent on renewable resources than it is of traditional fossil fuels such as oil and coal. While automobiles and airplanes see a continued demand for petroleum in Iceland, virtually all other sectors of industry and have seen a shift toward renewable energy. While a handful of power plants provide power to the national grid, many renewable energy sites, particularly geothermal ones, operate at the local scale and provide power for farms and households within a certain radius.
Iceland is situated in a very unique location with regards to geothermal activity. It happens to be a volcanic hotspot which also sits atop the active tectonic rift of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The result of this is what we see today; a terrain where volcanic eruptions occur twice or more every decade and where minor volcanic activity is a daily occurrence.
Geothermal energy has proven to be an especially abundant resource as a result of these characteristics, giving Iceland a unique advantage compared to other regions of the world as far as renewable energy generation is concerned. Whilst many countries have a strong focus on solar, wind, and hydroelectric power generation, Iceland is currently able to provide for over 60% of its energy needs using geothermal energy.
Other parts of the world have a similar potential for geothermal development, including the Hawaiian Islands and the area surrounding Mount Fuji in Japan.
Yet, none have been able to harness the natural sources of heat and energy in the way that Iceland has. The European island nation currently has 6 geothermal power plants, and many smaller sites that help convert heat from the ground into usable electricity for the national grid. Of these plants, 5 are located on the Reykjanes Peninsula surrounding the capital city of Reyjavik, 2 of them at Svartsengi, and the other 3 near the towns of Reykjanes, Hellisheidi, and Nesjavellir. Most of Iceland’s population of over 300,000 resides in this area, with volcanic activity including some of Iceland’s most famous geysers in the Haukadalur Valley as well as the world renowned hot spring resort called the Blue Lagoon.
Diagram by Christopher Beddow
Iceland’s geothermal energy is tapped by drilling beneath the surface. Often, this does not have to be very deep, as ground temperature rises rapidly near areas with tectonic activity. Groundwater running through these hot earth zones turns to steam, which can sometimes be seen emanating from geysers and hot springs. Many of these geothermal reservoirs have no actual other way of flowing out into open air. Apart from drilling, another method is to provide water externally and let it be heated by geothermal sources in order to produce steam. In both cases, steam is used to power turbines, thus generating an output of energy.
A global outlook?
Geothermal power plants produce a byproduct called brine, a type of contaminated water which must be carefully cooled down and separated in order to prevent it from mixing with freshwater ecosystems. In many places around the world, brine is not handled with care and can present a serious threat to fish, plants, and other parts of the environment. Overall, geothermal plants have a very low rate of carbon emission, often near-zero, but responsible maintenance and handling of byproducts is an essential requirement for it to be considered a truly clean source of energy.
When it comes to percent of clean energy meeting society’s needs, Iceland is a world leader. While its circumstances certainly cannot be replicated at will in other countries, teams from Iceland have been actively working around the globe to help develop other geothermal energy projects insofar as geological conditions permit. There are active volcanic regions on every continent of the Earth, and although they have often been regarded as dangers in the past, many of them hold future potential as abundant energy reserves. North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa have all began developing geothermal energy systems, and in some cases Icelandic participation has contributed to their success substantially.
Diagram by Icelandic National Energy Authority
Although geothermal energy can provide an essentially endless supply of power, there are also potential dangers associated with over-development. The geothermal process is in some ways similar to fracking, or hydraulic fracturing – which involves drilling into the earth and injecting fluids into shale rock layers in order to fracture the earth and release natural gas deposits. While fracking releases natural gases such as methane and other hydrocarbons, geothermal drilling only releases water vapor. Yet, in both cases, water is injected directly into the rock with the specific intention of causing fractures, which can cause small earthquakes to occur. However, these are often at a magnitude of around 1, which is unlikely to pose any real threat to infrastructure.
21st century prospects
Future geothermal projects in Iceland include the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP), which plans to test the practice of boring over 5 kilometers into the earth in order to extract heat from some of Iceland’s largest geothermal reservoirs.
This depth, double that of conventional plants, is ambitious, but perhaps also dangerous. A feasibility report by the IDDP acknowledged the possibility of damage to geological features and formations, to wetlands and sensitive areas, and to local flora and fauna. However, these risks were deemed to be easily mitigated by undertaking the drilling far from roads. This would ensure that any damage is neither noticeable nor of any real social importance. The opposition to this project appears to be relatively silent, there has been very little activism on the issue, which suggests that there are no major concerns about the long-term risk of geothermal drilling to local communities. If all of this is correct, then the IDDP may represent a revolutionary step forward in renewable energy, allowing for much larger-scale extraction of geothermal resources that may further reduce the need for fossil fuels in grid distributed energy.
Photograph by Christopher Beddow
Iceland, while not without its troubles, has recently become one of the world’s wealthiest, most stable, and most energy independent nations, despite being isolated and economically poor only a century ago. This very same isolation has contributed to the need for local energy development, in what is referred to as a spatially segregated system rather than one which is well-integrated with neighboring countries.
As an island, Iceland has found that it is burdened with a more crucial need for self-sufficiency, and geothermal power has played a large part in achieving this. As the European nation continues to improve its own energy ecosystem, it has the noble goal of lending both knowledge and helping hands to other nations in their own endeavor for energy independence.
Geothermal energy as a whole is one of the many beacons of hope in our world’s future, and with sufficient effort and funding it has the potential to make other regions of the world as commendable and remarkable as the beautiful, volcano-covered country of Iceland.
A symptom, not cause, of a growing and changing world
March 11th 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow
Photograph by Drew Angerer
Two minutes after midnight on October 12th, 1999, Adnan Nevic was born just outside Sarajevo, Bosnia. He was dubbed “Baby Six Billion”, as his birth marked not only the start of his own life but also the growth of human population beyond six billion worldwide.
Population had been growing rapidly since the industrial age, and today stands at over 7 billion. More than 26 million people have been born in 2015 alone, a result of continuously increasing birthrates. While China and India are the hosts to the world’s largest population, the United States is a distant third. Meanwhile, Nigeria’s birthrate is rising so quickly that it is expected to exceed the US, Brazil, and Indonesia in population by 2050 and reach nearly 1 billion by 2100.
In Nigeria, the reasons for such growth are many: a drop in both adult and infant mortality rates due to medical advancements, a growing economy, and a still fledgling use of contraception, among other factors. This is a typical pattern among countries in a similar situation, both past and present.
The United States, meanwhile, has grown to over 320 million in 2015. The first national census in 1790 recorded a population just shy of 4 million, with a growth rate of 3% per annum. This rate has gradually declined to around 1% today. One year, however, stands out from the others – 2000.
The dot-com boom had reached its peak after 1999, as growth in the internet sector fueled the economy before eventually bursting. Whilst this would have encouraged a higher birthrate, just as economic gains in developing countries have done, this was actually not the case. The net increase in population appears to have had its unique origin not in the country’s birth rate, but in immigration.
Immigration into the US
The year 2000 saw 28.4 million immigrants living in the United States, the largest number that had ever been recorded. In 1990, it was below 20 million. Today, it stands at over 40 million. These figures exclude undocumented immigrants, meaning population numbers are even higher in reality. Why did this rate spike so suddenly in 2000, and what drives over a million immigrants to enter the United States every year?
The dot-com boom of the 1990s undoubtedly made the United States an attractive destination for immigration. Economic opportunity appeared to be abundant, and demand for labor increased even despite the American birth rate barely being self-sustaining; that is, falling short of the required rate of 2 children per couple.
Neighboring Mexico supplies a large portion of the population of immigrants, largely due to the ease of movement across their shared border as opposed to having to travel overseas. Overall, 58 percent of immigrants to the US come from Latin America. This concept is commonly portrayed as a simple case of influx of labor into the job market, but this is not necessarily the case.
Emigration away from the US
In examining the reasons for this immigration wave and the momentum thereafter, it can be useful to ask a question about the behavior of another population: American emigrants. Over 800,000 Americans are legal residents in the EU, which is only a few thousand more than the oddly large American resident population in Mexico. Canada, the Philippines, Israel, Japan, and Brazil are among others with resident American populations in the tens of thousands and beyond.
Some of the most commonly cited reasons behind this emigration are business opportunities (oil in Dubai), cheaper economies (housing in Mexico), political atmospheres (freedoms in the Netherlands), religious reasons (Jewish diaspora to Israel), or access to government services (healthcare in Canada).
These reasons change throughout history, such as political emigrants leaving for Canada after the election of George W. Bush, which spiked minutely after the 2004 election, or the thousands who emigrated from the Confederate States of America to Brazil following the end of the Civil War in the 1860s. Even between 1999 and 2010, the economy had changed enough to cause a wave of emigration in search of better conditions.
All of this paints a picture of human migration in general – it happens for a variety of reasons, and tends to happen in waves following particularly significant events.
Economic and political change
The increase in Mexican immigrants in the United States, starting in 2000, can be attributed to people with low economic status seeking a better job market, access to better education and healthcare, a more politically and socially stable atmosphere, and an overall increase in quality of life.
Other immigrant groups may have spiked in different years, including Europeans after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Middle Eastern immigrants – both Muslim and Christian – seeking political and religious freedom in light of regional turmoil that continues today.
Photograph by Getty Images
Many countries around the world have seen similar waves of migration, including the influx of Jewish people into Israel following the 1940s, waves of European migration to such South American countries as Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay in the 1800s, and the sudden departure of white South Africans following dramatic political shifts in 1990 marking the end of Apartheid.
In the end, these sorts of population spikes can always be attributed to a catalyst. That catalyst, however, is often difficult to identify in the modern day, as global society is perhaps more dynamic than ever. Such analysis tends to be easier looking back over several decades, as patterns in history become clearer, and yet the details more obscure.
Looking into the future
The most important lesson from examining spikes in population growth such as that in the United States in 2000 is that the reasons for any change in our global society are exceedingly complex. Human movement across boundaries is as old as the species itself, and will continue to be driven by new factors. The rate of Mexican immigration to the US is falling, while the number of Americans living abroad is increasing. This is a microcosm of the world at large, where the cultures, economies, and political institutions are becoming interwoven, spurring both change and conflict.
Worldwide, death rates will fall, longevity will rise, birth rates will increase, and net population will grow and grow. As seen in the United States, a minor challenge such as immigration policy can be over-emphasized and seen as a cause for division.
However, the major challenge is how political, economic, and social conditions will be transformed, preserved, and expanded in order to meet the needs of a human community that is changing and growing faster than ever before.
Exploring Martian soil and NASA’s ‘Spuds in Space’
February 20th 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow
Photograph by NASA
In the year 2000, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) supported a project called Spuds in Space, where simulated Martian soil called JSC Mars-1 and potato seedlings were transported off the earth on the space shuttle Atlantis.
The idea was to see if the crop would grow in a combination of alien soil and the artificial atmosphere of a space shuttle. The potato would theoretically provide food while also, along with other possible plants, initiating the natural process of cleaning the air from carbon dioxide. This was a small experiment, initiated with the help of middle school students in potato-famous Idaho; its repercussions, however, could emerge decades later in real Martian soil.
The potato has evolved to grow on earth only in certain conditions. Like any plant it has its native environment, as well as a range of regions where it has been successfully introduced. Mars may not be Antarctica or the Sahara Desert, but despite having abundant topsoil it still has more extreme variables than anywhere on earth – more solar radiation, a different atmospheric content, and lower atmospheric pressure. The Spuds in Space project was designed to find out whether or not the potato could be grown in Martian soil with human-controlled conditions such as protection from radiation, adjusted pressure, and an artificial atmosphere. With these measures in place, the only remaining question is whether or not Mars’s red soil itself would capable of nourishing a potato just as well as a field outside of Idaho Falls. The answer lies in an examination of the makeup of Martian soil.
Instruments onboard the Viking lander began collecting information about Martian soil after reaching Mars in the summer of 1976. Over two decades later, the Sojourner lander of the Mars Pathfinder also reached the Martian surface and gathered more up to date readings. In 1998, researchers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center began to develop JSC Mars-1 soil after determining its properties were very similar to the soil near the famous Hawaiian volcano Mauna Kea. This soil is tephra, a layer of volcanic ash which has been an integral part of agriculture in many regions of the world including Polynesia and Iceland.
However, Martian soil can vary greatly in its composition, and it is not all tephra. JSC-1 Mars corresponds very likely to the brightest red areas of the Martian surface. Meanwhile, many other properties of the soil are unknown. Since 2008, it has continued to be tested for nutrients, acidity, and other properties that shape how it may interact with organic compounds and biological organisms. The essential ingredients for life appear to be a combination of these organic compounds – that is, chemical compounds containing carbon with both water and heat. While the surface of Mars is known to reach up to 20 degrees centigrade, the sort of heat involved in biogenesis is more akin to something found in a volcanic environment. Water, meanwhile, was not known to exist on Mars until very recently when the Curiosity rover confirmed that in some places it was notably abundant in the soil.
The low heat on Mars suggests that life may not form on a whim, but what if it were indeed introduced in the form of an already existing Earthly seed? Indeed, there is a possibility that the potato, among other plants, could be grown on Mars if the conditions are compatible.
Photograph by Bryan Versteeg
Atmospheric pressure would have to be controlled much like the pressure in the cabin of an airliner, most likely using a greenhouse-like structure. Plants grow poorly in low pressure areas like that on Mars, even if they are given an earth-like atmospheric content and are protected from high levels of radiation. Providing additional water, whilst difficult, would be made much more convenient if it becomes possible to collect it at volume on Mars itself.
The solution to the potato question, then, lies in engineered adaptation. Explorers to the Americas found that, just like in modern experiments with Martian soil, many of their crops did not comply well with the new environment despite having rich soil. Failure to predict which crops would thrive brought the risk of starvation, but also forced adaptation on the part of humans. Luckily, many were able to experiment with local crops as well as new forms of agriculture often learned from natives. With Mars, modern technology presents the novel approach of modifying plants on a genetic level to adjust to lower pressures rather than undergoing trial and error like in the past. This could serve to eliminate the need for excessive water use and may even pave the way for further modifications involving the types of atmospheric gases a plant can tolerate and the amount of radiation it can withstand – although that is pure speculation at this point in time.
Viking settlers in Iceland triggered a process of ecological changes that lasted until the 20th Century, leaving much of the island’s surface as barren as Mars itself. After NASA’s own Viking landers reached Mars, we have begun a new era of exploration that, this time, comes with a degree of ecological caution as we consider not only the romance of human presence on Mars but the sustainability of such an endeavour. To survive without costly and life-or-death dependency on our home, a human settlement on Mars would most certainly need to develop self-sufficiency in the long term.
Fundamentally, the great promise of the Spuds in Space concept and the research that has come in the nearly two decades following is that humanity is taking careful steps to understand the importance and opportunity of agriculture beyond our planet. Experiments with JSC-1 Mars soil have found that potatoes, among other edible plants, can indeed be grown if the environment is controlled.
There may be no life to be found on Mars just yet, but it appears to be only a matter of time before we set foot onto its surface and, quite literally, seek to take root in a new, red earth.