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Would-be astronaut has high hopes

Owen Sound Sun Times

PhD student working on ways to help grow plants on Mars

Jim Algie

January 18, 2008

After Matt Bamsey finishes his PhD in environmental biology at the University of Guelph he hopes to fly to the moon.

His doctoral thesis involves development of sensors for use in remote greenhouses expected to form an essential part of the life support system for future missions to Mars. Current plans rely heavily on greenhouse plantings for food and oxygen and to recycle water for explorers from Earth.

Bamsey, who commutes between Guelph and the Canadian Space Agency near Montreal where he does most of his research, spoke Thursday to students at St. Mary's High School in Owen Sound about his work and their science projects.

In a presentation to Gino Ferri's Grade 10 civics course during the final period of the day, Bamsey emphasized parallels between space exploration and personal exploration.

"We've got to invest a bit in the future by way of exploration in exciting new projects that are going to inspire people," Bamsey told one student who questioned the cost of space research. "These are useful projects that can help grow your society as a whole and really help your society to keep from stagnating in some ways."

Bamsey has known since high school that he wanted something to do with aeronautics. He completed an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering at Carleton University, then a masters degree at the University of Colorado in orbital mechanics, developing space suits for astronauts.

Bamsey has two advisors for his PhD, one at Guelph, the other at the Canadian Space Agency. Last summer he spent four months living mission-style with an international crew at the Flash Line Mars Arctic Research Station on Devon Island in northern Canada.

"My career goal is to be an astronaut," Bamsey, 27, said in an interview after class. "To go to the moon would be amazing."

The timing works. The retirement of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's shuttle program, expected in 2010, and introduction of the new Orion spacecraft by 2014 should mean a surge in space flights to prepare for a planned $104-billion project to put 12 people on the moon beginning no later than 2020. The 900-day Mars exploration mission isn't expected until 2035.

His chances of Orion flights to the moon or otherwise depend on how many places Canada gets in the international crew and who else applies for the job. The last call brought in 8,000 applicants.

Plants will be crucial to the life support on Mars when humans finally arrive. The material used to cover any greenhouse on the planet will have to be portable and light, but strong enough to withstand a low pressure, mainly carbon dioxide, high radiation atmosphere with punishing winds and huge temperature swings between minus-140 and 20 Celsius as well as micro-meteorite storms.

Others are working on those parts of the problem. Bamsey is trying to develop ways sensors can measure nutrients for plants in remotely managed greenhouses.

The work has relevance to greenhouse operations on Earth, but for Bamsey it's all about the mission to Mars.

Why Mars? Because among Earth's near neighbours, Martian atmospheric conditions most closely resemble our own.

But to survive a 900-day mission, each astronaut requires about 10,000 kilograms of air, food and water. That's too much weight for a spacecraft to carry, so it has to come from plants, Bamsey said.

Plants absorb carbon dioxide, emit oxygen and produce food. They also have the capacity to recycle and clean water.

The values of space research apply to most other human endeavours, Bamsey told the students. It involves the personal challenges of hard work, risk, teamwork and exploration.

"If you don’t get out and try new things, how do you know what’s good?" he said.

Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility | Ontario Agricultural College
University of Guelph | Guelph | Ontario | Canada | N1G2W1
PHONE: 519.824.4120 EXT 52909
FAX: 519.837.0442
info@ces.uoguelph.ca