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To boldly grow: Mars Plant Experiment team vies for spot on 2020 Mars rover

NASA plans to introduce plants to Mars in a mobile greenhouse that will tag along with its 2020 Mars rover. The greenhouse is still in its proposal phase and is one of many steps on the way to colonizing Mars.

To establish sustainability and long-term living on Mars, scientists will have to think of ways to grow plants on the Red Planet. The most logical way to go about such a feat is making an isolated, self-contained system within which plants can (hopefully) grow successfully.

The Mars Plant Experiment (MPX) will be able to tell us if plants can grow in the gravity of the Martian atmosphere and under bombardment by heavy radiation. The experimental design involves a clear cube of CO2 attached to the rover with 250 Arabidopsis (fast-growing flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard) seeds. Upon landing the system would begin taking nurturing the seeds--watering them and regulating their temperature with heaters and LEDs. Using cameras, we would be able to observe, for the first time, a natural life cycle playing out on a different planet.

"It also would be the first multicellular organism to grow, live and die on another planet," said Heather Smith, deputy principal investigator of the MPX. The project would be another giant step for mankind...or at least for leafy greens.

The team that designed the MPX also designed the LPX, or the Lunar Plant Experiment, to see if the moon could offer habitable conditions for life.

Plants have, of course, been sent to space before. However these past experiments only tested plant growth in space stations and never within the moon or Mars's atmosphere. The difference is gravity. On the space stations (1973 Skylab station grew rice seeds; 1995 Russian Mir station grew wheat and the ISS has a vegetable garden), the plants grew in a microgravity environment. Studies showed that life wasn't all too great for the plants up there--a recent NASA study revealed that they undergo twice the amount of genetic mutations they experience on Earth.

However scientists believe that the moon and Mars, which have a third and a sixth of Earth's gravity, respectively, and qualify as low-gravity atmospheres rather than microgravity, would allow plants to grow without the stress encountered in space station experiments.

"Plants don't like zero gravity. Humans don't like zero gravity. Not even cockroaches like zero gravity," said Chris McKay, principal investigator of the MPX and LPX. "But we have no idea if the same is true for low gravity."

McKay and colleagues hope to find out, but there are 57 other projects competing for territory on the 2020 rover. They will find out on Thursday if their project is selected. Meanwhile, scientists everywhere are conducting experiments to make the challenge of growing plants where minerals, water and electricity are scarce, slightly more feasible.

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