South MS students team up with NASA on unique Mars mission

Students from Mississippi and Alabama are working with NASA to conduct experiments to see if a certain type of algae could grow on Mars.
Students from Mississippi and Alabama are working with NASA to conduct experiments to see if a certain type of algae could grow on Mars.

LONG BEACH, MS (WLOX) - It's a mystery that NASA scientists haven't figured out yet: Can organisms from Earth survive on Mars? The answer could come from some South Mississippi students.

This year, students from Mississippi and Alabama are working with NASA on a unique mission.   They'll conduct experiments to see if a certain type of algae could grow on Mars. On Monday, they gathered at the USM campus in Long Beach to begin their quest for answers.

NASA is turning to the young scientists for fresh, creative ideas on a new project. Eighty five science students from St. Stanislaus, Bay High, and two high schools in Mobile are participating in a first-of-its-kind study called "Pioneering Mars."

"What's so different about this project is we actually bring the students in at very beginning and have them actually work on developing experiments. These students are going to have some very interesting ideas for sure," said Dr. Scott Milroy, USM Assistant Professor of Marine Science.

At USM in Long Beach, the students designed their own experiments to determine if life can survive on Mars. They will be testing a blue-green algae known as Cyanobacteria. The microscopic algae come from frigid, rough conditions of Antarctica, very similar to the climate on Mars. So the question is if these tiny plants can grow in Antarctica, can they also thrive on the Red Planet?

"We're getting a little bit of hands-on experience with learning how to work with a group of people who have different ideas, and they're from different places. We're also learning how scientists formulate their experiments," said Quinten Barrios, a St. Stanislaus junior.

"I think it's an amazing opportunity, and I'm excited about what we're going to come up with and how it's going to work out," said Meghan Sergeant, a senior from Baker High School in Mobile.

"It's just been this big pool of ideas and brain storming going into this one thing. It's awesome," said Aubrey Pohl, a Bay High School senior.

In the spring, the students will conduct their experiments in a controlled lab at USM Gulf Park.   They will expose the algae to all sorts of conditions, like ultraviolet light and different soil chemistry, to see if it can grow.

"Kind of attached to that is, is it possible to potentially colonize Mars sometime in the distant future, if we can demonstrate that life from Earth could be transplanted and could actually survive on Mars?" asked Milroy.

Scientists are also interested in this particular plant, because it creates oxygen.

"It opens up a whole new range of possibilities as whether these Cyanobacteria could potentially transform the atmosphere on Mars, because they give off oxygen essentially when they're growing," said Milroy. "So if they could potentially oxygenate the atmosphere on Mars, that could open the doors essentially to having possibly human habitation sometime in the long, long distant future."

In May, the students will present their results at a conference in Hancock County. There's a possibility that NASA could choose their experiments for astronauts to perform on the International Space Station.

The project is being funded by a $278,000 NASA grant. It is one of five university projects that NASA is funding.

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