Biology professor Tim Kral won't argue with anyone if they call his fascination with Mars an obsession.
He loves the Red Planet, with its average temperature of -60 degrees C and atmosphere that's 95 percent carbon monoxide. In Professor Kral's office at the University of Arkansas, Martian figurines sit on shelves next to books about scientific topics that most people wouldn't even know how to pronounce.
"I have always been interested in the search for life out there," Kral says. And that search is what keeps him occupied at the Arkansas-Oklahoma Center for Space and Planetary Science, which opened last month in Fayetteville.
The center's main tool for planetary study will be the Andromeda chamber, which, when it's fully assembled in the coming months, will allow researchers and students to simulate the conditions of planets, comets, and asteroids.
Previously housed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., it's the largest simulator of its kind in North America. A larger one is used in Cologne, Germany.
Kral and a colleague from Oklahoma State University in Stillwater started developing the joint research center five years ago, intent on keeping their universities current in a space-oriented age.
The National Science Foundation, private companies, and an advisory board of scientists from around the world participate as well.
"The center will be an interface between university researchers and scientists who put together space missions," says Derek Sears, the center's director and a chemistry professor at the University of Arkansas. It will also offer master of science and doctorate degrees for students of both universities.
Creating an atmosphere
Thanks to the Andromeda chamber, researchers can explore Mars without ever leaving Arkansas.
It looks like a 10-foot-high water heater - albeit a complicated, one-ton version - with 70 meters of copper tubing wrapped around it. It sits in a concrete-lined hole in the floor, about two feet deep.
Researchers can create ultraviolet radiation, pressure, and designated temperatures inside the chamber. Then they leak gases into its interior through the tubing to simulate a variety of planetary conditions.
Professors Sears and Kral see so much research potential for the chamber that their excitement veers toward giddiness when they talk about it.
Currently, Kral and his graduate students are examining the possibility of life on Mars. They spend their time analyzing test tubes that look as if they are filled with potting soil. But this is no normal dirt. Rather, it's a Mars soil simulant that came from a Hawaii volcano.
In 1998, Kral was having a lazy afternoon and read about the soil in a science magazine. It changed his life.
"I knew this was some stuff I wanted to play with," Kral says. "Now it's like we are playing games to rule out other factors to prove life can exist."
His attention is on methanogens - methane-producing microorganisms from a group of microbes called Archaea, thought to be one of the most ancient branches on the tree of life.
The methanogens have grown successfully in the soil simulant, which has a limited water supply (since Mars has little, if any, water on its surface).
The chamber will allow him and his students to take their studies beyond the imagination. "We can look to see if life can be under the surface of Mars in the chamber," Kral says.
Mars is the closest planet to Earth in terms of both distance and its history, Sears says. It is the most earthlike planet, he explains, because unlike on other planets, there appears to be water under the surface.
While Kral looks for life in dirt, other professors are focusing on different projects. Sears is looking beyond Mars, although some of his research with another professor focuses on creating miniaturized equipment that can survive surface conditions on Mars.
Sears' big project is to assemble a proposal to NASA for a space mission called Hera, named after the Greek goddess.
The Hera mission, which he's working on with researchers from a number of universities, would obtain small samples from three near-Earth asteroids. Sears believes the complicated mission, proposed for 2006, would produce more scientific data than any mission since Apollo.
The spacecraft would use what's called a "touch-and-go sampler," extending a high-speed drill into the asteroids. It would also be equipped with cameras and a variety of data-gathering tools.
Because NASA has become more cost-conscious in recent years, it's more eager to give opportunities to university-based researchers, who keep costs down through assistance from graduate students.
"It's an exciting time, and for students who want to explore life out there, it's a great time to be studying in the field," says Sears.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society