#LettuceOnMars

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I was on campus for a good couple of hours today; it’s Christmas Jumper Day! Organised by my housemate, the event was a UK-wide effort to simultaneously get everyone in the Christmas spirit, and raise money for Save The Children. We had great fun selling the 50-odd cakes I baked for the occasion last night, bucket shaking until people took pity on us out in the freezing cold in only our festive knitwear, and blasting the Redbrick with some seasonal Michael Bublé.

There are of course plenty of people outside the Union on any given day, and while we gleefully accepted and read the latest copies of Wessex Scene, we also shared our space with a group of people spreading the word about their project. We got chatting, and asking what they were all about, and we were absolutely blown away.

Mars One is a non-profit organisation, which ones day hopes to build permanent settlements on Mars. In 2018 they are sending an unmanned lander to the planet to test the viability of new and existing technologies, and an international competition is being held to find a group of scientists to design and build equipment for one of the lander’s payload spaces.

This is where #LettuceOnMars comes in.

A group of University of Southampton students have passed through all rounds of the competition, to make it to the final selection process – a popular vote, where they are one of 10 candidate groups.

Their project aims to test the ability of the Martian atmosphere to grow plant life, with only a bare minimum of material imported from Earth. Said plant life has been chosen as lettuce; an edible crop with durable seeds that uses space efficiently, it has been grown in orbit before, and would not be remiss in a human Martian colony.

Frozen seeds will be carried by the powered-down lander in its journey to the planet, which will then heat up and switch on upon landing. This will maintain a pleasant, ideal temperature of 21-24°C; a slight contrast to the ambient one of -63ºC. The equipment will use pressurised carbon dioxide and reacted nitrogen species from Mars’ atmosphere and oxygen from electrolysis to grow the plants by aeroponics, flourishing under both light from both the Sun and LEDs in the payload.

The lettuce will take around four weeks to grow, during which time sensory and video information will be relayed back to Earth to check if anything is growing in unpredictable, or fundamentally different, ways. On Mars.

Honestly, I was nearly drowning out the Bublé with my Bowie after we learnt about all of this. There really could be life on Mars! Admittedly, things we put there and then sadly kill at the end of the experiment to stop possible contamination and being responsible for a lettuce invasion of alien planets, but still!

We were blown away by the enthusiasm and hard work of this team, who number just seven and who come from a variety of science backgrounds, all stemming from the University’s Spaceflight society. The payload module they designed has passed through the technical round, so all that now stops a team of students from a place close to our hearts doing something truly awe inspiriting is only a vote.

The easiest way to vote is to like this photo on Facebook, but you can vote multiple times following the links on #LettuceOnMars’s website. This team of hardworking students are the only UK contenders in the whole competition, and the ability to play a tiny part in establishing real, growing plant life on Mars is only the click of a button away. Beyond easy.

You could even call it a god-awful small affair.

Damn it. So close.

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