NASA doesn't just have plans to send more robots—and maybe humans—to Mars over the next decade. The agency also wants to bring some plant life to the Martian planet in the hopes of encouraging some good old terraforming. What's bereft of life and red all over might one day be a lush paradise. One can only hope. Evidence certainly suggests it was much different millions of years ago compared to how it is now.
Folks from the Ames Research Center have proposed a new mission, Mars Plant Experiment (MPX), that would send plant life to Mars with the next rover. The goal is to see how the plants you and I stare at everyday will handle the lower gravity and higher radiation levels present on Mars. Can they adapt and survive, or are the conditions too extreme? Nature has this incredible ability to sustain under even the most dire of circumstances. Scientists want to put that notion to its biggest test.
Initial testing will put a clear CubeSat box into a kind of greenhouse, filling it with Earth air and seeds of the Arabidopsis plant, which is a cousin to mustard. So this experiment isn't exactly digging a hole on Mars and then planting a tree. Baby steps. The plan calls for the box to live atop NASA's next rover, which will actually care for and water the plants. NASA made a mockup of what this might look like. Perhaps not what we were expecting, but if life can sustain, then we'll be in business for even bigger experiments.
Scientists are in the belief that, despite its outward appearance, Mars once harbored microbial life, and may have even had water sitting atop the surface at some point. That's difficult to imagine considering the latest panorama showed a bleak and lonesome desert devoid of life; just Curiosity and the wide open landscape. But what if plants can survive? Perhaps colonization isn't out of the question after all.
"In order to do a long-term, sustainable base on Mars, you would want to be able to establish that plants can at least grow on Mars," said Heather Smith, the deputy principal investigator for MPX. "We would go from this simple experiment to the greenhouses on Mars for a sustainable base."
The next Mars rover is expected to depart Earth in 2020, and land in 2021, so the answer to whether plant life can survive won't be revealed for a long time. But if it can? We'll have to come up with another nickname. The Red Planet might not cut it anymore.