The Martian Scientist

[Version française sur le site de La Recherche]


Yesterday, I broke a flask. A little glass flask, which slipped from my hands. A cheap flask, easily replaceable, that I would have quickly forgotten under normal conditions.

But I am not under normal conditions. I am living in a white dome, isolated on a volcano. As I have not seen a shop in the past eight months, and the dome has no postal address, I will have to go without. Without this flask, precious after all, that was part of the limited supplies we have here. Researchers on Mars will have to face constraints which are unusual to a typical western laboratory. Here, I am getting a taste of it.

First, the mass and volume of equipment I could bring were very limited. Partly because our lab here is smaller than the bathrooms of the labs I usually work in and partly because, on a real mission to Mars, every pound or liter will matter. So I have to work with as little as I can. It means, for instance, finding reusable alternatives to the disposable tools we normally use. Growing cyanobacteria in an aquarium turned into a bioreactor. Centrifuging tens of liters of liquid culture in 15-ml tubes (I’ll let you calculate how inconvenient that is), because that is the maximum capacity of the centrifuge whose dimensions were acceptable for the mission. Performing microbiology work in the sterile volume generated by the tiny flame of an ethanol lamp (until the day after, hoping that you are not contaminating your samples seems like a matter of faith). Or, using empty bottles as a basis for a hydroponic setup for plants.

Lettuce in a bottle
Lettuce growing in a repurposed bottle.

Second, the lack of access to the market. Remember, last time you applied for a grant, how you made a nice, detailed list of everything you needed for your project? You wrote the prices on the right and knew, to the dollar, how much the project would cost. You knew what supplies you were going to use… until you confronted your plans to reality. You used more tubes than expected because you had forgotten a control, you spilled a bottle of reagent, a colleague broke your glassware when dancing to the sound of his MP3 player, you realized that your brilliant idea was incompatible with the laws of physics and you needed to change your plans, your intern diluted the buffer into the enzymes instead of the contrary… In short, if you compared your initial list to the list of what you actually used, you may display an embarrassed smile. Now, imagine that you only had access to what you wrote on the list. You need some extra tubes? Too bad. You ordered the wrong reagent? Your loss. You need some extra supplies for an excellent idea you got along the way? They were not on the list.

Before the mission, I had to think of everything I would need for a year, down to the smallest detail. Then I had to cut it down to adequate volumes and masses. But in spite of this thorough planning, I often have to improvise. As an example: I wanted to grow cyanobacteria at room temperature. After all, I sometimes do it in the lab “on Earth”. Except that there, temperatures rarely go down to below 20°C. Here, to spare power, we wear sweaters rather than turning the heater on. Temperatures do not reach 10°C during the night, and are usually below 20°C during the day. So I put a lamp in an old incubator… that died after a month or so. I started to think that I could not grow large enough cultures on time to perform the experiments I had planned. Fortunately, when digging into our equipment, I found a piece of a thermostat and a ceramic heating lamp. By tinkering with some wires from an unused extension cord, an LED and a big box formerly used to store food, a crewmate and I put together a makeshift photo-incubator. As another example, we have a 3D-printer to manufacture a few tools we did not pack.

2016-04-25_Photoincubator (3)
Our makeshift photo-incubator.

Another challenge comes from a lack of energy. No, not the post-prandial apathy that any researcher knows too well. The lack of electric power. Here, our energy mostly comes from solar panels (we have hydrogen fuel cells and a propane generator as backup systems, but with limited supplies). Before the mission, I assessed the power consumption of my experiments, gave up on some equipment, and finally found a solution that works… on paper. In practice, our power generation is quite unpredictable: we don’t face dust storms as we would have on Mars, but we do get clouds. I often have to postpone experiments because we lack the power for running the centrifuge or the autoclave.

Other resources can become limiting. Water, for instance, which is very precious here. Or time: our busy schedules leave little time for our own research projects. And when I plan a several-day experiment, I sometimes have to start again from scratch because an unexpected and urgent task showed up. Information is lacking, too: we don’t have a direct Internet access, or any direct communication. The Mission Support Crew is extremely helpful and do their best to give us the specific documents or pieces of information we ask for. But even though this works great for news and recipes, it may be tedious when looking for scientific details which are probably hidden in a paper that is obscure to all but a handful of researchers (You know how the way you explain your research is easy to understand, even to the layman? Well, it’s not). Getting information that we could find in less than 15 minute “on Earth” can take days here, especially given that our emails have a 20-minute delay in both directions.

Mental energy and focus can also be difficult to gather. How do you feel after spending an entire weekend at home, without going outside even once? Imagine spending months there. Because of the lack of open air and the monotony, we sometimes have to fight a tendency to slow down. Fortunately, there is a fix: running on the treadmill. It does not clear your mind as well as a run in nature, but it greatly helps when your brain refuses to collaborate and just wants to update your mailbox for the tenth time this hour. And to focus in spite of the 5 people you can always hear (sound insulation is pretty bad here), headphones with white noise work great – a solution I found when working in an open space in Rome, where two people at two opposite sides of the lab can speak passionately about what they had for dinner.

The way we experience and overcome those constraints is thoroughly documented, so as to better organize future Mars missions. It shows how much automation, versatility of equipment, ability to produce unanticipated tools on-site, low resource consumption, and reusing and recycling of supplies that are currently disposable, will be important. But it can also teach us a lot about how we could work on Earth. Research – notably in biology labs – typically consumes impressive amounts of resources. As an example, the bioscience department of the University of Exeter released close to a metric ton of plastic waste per lab scientist in 2014. At a time when fossil resources are quickly depleted and our environmental impacts are increasingly concerning, a great shift is needed in the way we perform research. Inspiration for new approaches could come from research supporting manned space exploration: when managing resources efficiently is not an option but a necessity, people find solutions that they would not have imagined otherwise.

2 thoughts on “The Martian Scientist

  1. Mr.Kat says:

    I do believe a Glass Blowing Project would be a very useful exercise, for both developing processes and for exploring materials and material refinement. Then again, finished glass is very light, per unit volume, versus sand. It just takes up so much space, and you can’t fix it once it breaks…


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