What I did this summer: Dan Jackson

August 13, 2019

Dan Jackson teaches astronomy, physics and mathematics at Penn State Lehigh Valley. He is currently working on two research projects, including a new project about Martian soil.

three people in front of bright purple lights

Dan Jackson (right) posed with his two student researchers as they get started on exploring Martian soil.

IMAGE: Amy Gery

What was the highlight of your summer so far? 

"I am working on a new project for this year called Green Thumb on a Red Planet with two students: Francis Kuklis and Abigayle Ward. The idea is to obtain a sample that is the closest analog to Martian soil based on the most recent soil surveys from the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers on Mars. We will work to investigate how we can take this lifeless rocky material and transform it into viable and useful soil by planting several generations of plants repeatedly in the same sample to increase the soil's organic composition. Based on collaborative discussions with botanist Karen Kackley-Dutt, we have narrowed the list of starting species. This work is relevant as the price of lifting equipment into orbit can exceed $10,000 per kilogram of material, so anything that can be done to minimize cost is important. Small seed packets are cheap to transport compared to a large volume of mulch or manure and the need to make best use of available resources on Mars is a priority. Our research will use existing equipment in the student research laboratory, to grow the plants under controlled lighting conditions."

How did this opportunity come about?

"Francis took my ASTRO I introduction to astronomy course in the spring and is majoring in planetary science and astronomy. He is really excited about the possibility of colonization of the moon or Mars and he wants to better understand how the colonists can make sustainable agricultural choices. This experiment was motivated by the book and subsequent movie called "The Martian," which tells a fictional story of a castaway left on Mars who learns to farm to survive until a rescue mission can return to pick him up."

What are your three favorite things from this experience so far?

"My favorite parts of this experience are seeing the excitement of my students as they progress through the project, learning more about the details of the Mars missions, and working with my faculty peers by sharing knowledge to build a more robust experiment."

What do you hope the student learns from this?

"The main goals are to expose the students to actual academic research so that they can understand the process better, to ignite their passion for learning, and to apply their classroom knowledge to the real-world problems that scientists are working to answer."

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Last Updated August 13, 2019