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Shooting for the Stars

Undergraduate team using NASA grant to learn about Mars on Earth

As a kid in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Bethany Kersten spent nights looking through her dad’s telescope at the vastness of the solar system. Glimpsing into another planetary world became one of her favorite childhood pastimes, and the mystery of space sparked her imagination.

Now a second-year student in the University of Idaho’s College of Engineering, Kersten is spearheading an ambitious student-led research project, the results of which may be used by NASA to prepare for a human Mars mission in the 2030s.

The group — known as Training in Advanced Technology and Exploration Research to Optimize Teamwork in Space, or TATERTOTS for short — is working on projects that address big questions: Is colonization possible in the red planet’s lava tubes? Is there a way to create a positioning system to keep track of Martian-based astronauts? Does life exist on Mars?

The project began with Susie Johnson, program manager for the NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium (ISGC), located at UI. In October 2015, Johnson visited the Women in Idaho Science and Engineering floor in Theophilus Tower residence hall and encouraged students to talk to her about possible NASA opportunities.

Kersten, who is studying chemical engineering and Spanish, along with Hailey Johnson, a second-year computer engineering student from Stanwood, Washington, didn’t hesitate. After meeting with Susie Johnson, they gathered together five other interested students and applied for NASA’s Undergraduate Student Instrument Project (USIP). Through USIP, NASA awarded more than $8 million to 47 teams of undergraduate students. UI’s project will use a high-altitude balloon to launch an experiment and cameras — known as payloads — to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere.

The students wrote and submitted their proposal in November 2015 and were awarded a $200,000 grant in April 2016. Their project began last fall semester, with the team refining its effort based on budget constraints and emerging research, while regularly reporting to NASA.

Living in Lava Tubes

This summer, the TATERTOTS high-altitude balloon launch will collect data to aid NASA experts conducting Mars analog research at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in southern Idaho — a geological phenomenon whose volcanic features and lava fields mimic those on Mars. Scientists studying Mars think the planet’s underground lava tubes are the best bet for finding life or developing human settlements.

“The big push is to study lava tubes because the issue with space exploration is cosmic radiation, and we don’t have a good way to shield against that,” said Avery Brock, a second-year electrical engineering major from Woodinville, Washington. “The radiation will just rip our DNA apart if we’re out there long enough. So NASA figured out that if you go about 6 feet underground on Mars, it’s an Earth-like environment in terms of radiation. It’s actually livable and the radiation doesn’t penetrate the ground far enough.”

For now, Susie Johnson said, NASA researchers working on the Field Investigations to Enable Solar System Science and Exploration (FINESSE) project are examining heat variations in the park’s lava formations to better understand how geological features appear on various instruments. Then, when the instruments encounter such temperatures from similar formations on Mars, scientists can deter-mine what they might be seeing. And these determinations, Johnson said, are important in finding resources and water, identifying viable landing spots and discovering potential habitability. To assist the FINESSE group, TATERTOTS students will launch a standard camera on the balloon to take photos at Craters of the Moon, offering better images of places FINESSE plans to explore. A second, multi-spectral camera will take images in UV or infrared spectrums. These images will help determine ground temperatures and the likelihood of lava tubes in a given area.

Finding Life, and Yourself, on Mars

Once the idea for the first payload fell into place, the group began discussing other things they could study with the project. Johnson encouraged students to consider what astronauts might need on a Mars-bound mission.

“We talked about how we take for granted, here on Earth, that we have a Global Positioning System,” Johnson said.

“And there’s no positioning system on Mars. What if you had multiple astronauts on the Martian landscape and you needed to find them because there’s a dust storm coming and you want to see their relative location?”

Provoked by this curiosity — and recognition of an unmet demand — students decided to create a proof of concept local positioning system that the FINESSE team could field test at Craters of the Moon. The proposed system includes three tethered balloons carrying signaling beacons that the astronauts would release above them. In theory, if they stayed within the perimeter of that triangulation, their positioning could be detected, and mapping could be accomplished.

The last piece of the TATERTOTS project focuses on the possibility of atmospheric life.

Students plan to launch a second payload, on the same high-altitude balloon carrying the cameras, into Earth’s upper atmosphere — 80,000 to 100,000 feet above ground — to see if microbes can thrive at such altitudes. Since most microorganisms are found in soil and water, the existence of airborne organisms in Earth’s upper reaches could be cause to look for similar signs of life in the Martian atmosphere.

The Bigger Picture

Beyond the scope of their USIP grant, the TATERTOTS students have their own interests and hopes for solving space-related questions.

Hailey Johnson is interested in creating artificial gravity for space flights to make travel easier on the body. Mareyna Karlin, a senior from Coos Bay, Oregon, majoring in animal science in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, wants to study the effects of space on humans’ immune system, including our response to various pathogens and bacteria. Kersten’s interests lie in developing nuclear power as a safe and sustainable energy source, which could have eventual aerospace applications. And Jonathan Preheim of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, wants to discover additional methods of obtaining information from greater distances via remote sensing.

Technology related to lowering the cost of space flights — which could expand the space tourism industry — is the domain of William Miller and Richard Baptista.

“If you’re old and retired, what else are you going to do with your life? You could play golf or you could go to Mars,” said Miller of Boise, a second-year student studying in the Colleges of Science and Engineering.

“Or, you could play golf on Mars,” said Baptista, a Buhl resident and second-year mechanical engineering major who wants to build reusable rockets for a private aerospace company. Combined with Brock’s interest in developing propulsion technology to create rockets that run on electricity rather than fuel, the cost of that golf trip may become more affordable.

The students are excited about the possibilities their projects hold for the future of space exploration. And Susie Johnson is proud of their accomplishments so far.

“The way they're attacking this project with such intensity, coupled with the spirit of being willing to try something they've never done before is huge," Johnson said. "That's what the future needs. It’s not necessarily that you have a Ph.D. in your back pocket. It’s having the willingness to jump in and confront a challenge.”

Article by Kate Keenan, College of Art and Architecture

Tatertots Story Image
Susie Johnson, project manager, Idaho Space Grant Consortium


University Communications and Marketing

Phone: 208-885-6291

Fax: 208-885-5841


Web: Communications and Marketing

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