Professor, students explore space survivability in Wichita State lab

Dr. Mark Schneegurt received a $377,000 grant from NASA to study what life on earth might be able to survive a journey to Mars.
Published: Jun. 7, 2023 at 7:51 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - It’s a question frequently pondered by star gazers: Are we alone in the universe? Here on Earth, a Wichita State University professor has been working with NASA to figure out what life on our planet might be able to survive the journey to Mars or some other object in our solar system.

In Dr. Mark Schneegurt’s lab, some of what students are researching take them far from Earth.

“(I am) a child of the Apollo missions and I’ve loved space ever since I was a kid,” Dr. Schneegurt explained about what led him to his field of study and teaching.

In the professor’s lab at Wichita State, students Yuki To and Obi Aginar are working to create the environment of our neighboring red planet, targeted as the next frontier for humans to explore beyond our planet.

“I’ve created this ice system analog to mimic Mars’ conditions and test out these variables of, ‘how can these microbes really survive in Mars’ conditions?’” To said.

Dr. Schneegurt and his students are researching the life we might be bringing with us as we explore our solar system.

“When people ask me whether there’s life on Mars, I always say, absolutely, we brought it with us,’” Dr. Schneegurt said.

Working with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the last 15 years, Dr. Schneegurt has focused on what microbes might hitchhike on spacecraft or other devices launched from Earth and be able to survive in the harsh cold of Mars or moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

“In order for liquid water to exist, which is required for life as we know it, it needs to be salty in order to have any chance of staying liquid in these cold temperatures,” Dr. Schneegurt said.

The professor recently received a $377,000 grant from NASA to further research.

“Kind of put those microbes through their paces. These are the types of environmental conditions we’d find on Marsh or on the icy moons of Saturn and Jupiter,” Dr. Schnneegurt said.

The samples that Dr. Schnnegurt and his students will be working with were collected from the clean rooms where the spacecraft were assembled. Their project is just getting started, with both graduate and undergrad students, and will provide a chance for students to work on the research, looking at the potential for life existing beyond Earth.

“It’s something I don’t really think about all the time, but recently I’ve kind of been getting there. But just kind of being that small part is just really cool,” Aginar said.

The project is expected to last about three years, and Dr. Schnneegurt is looking at this as an opportunity for other efforts like offering sessions for educators.