The Project

Hypothesis: Cyanobacteria, microscopic algae that grow in the extreme conditions of Antarctica, could potentially survive in the Martian climate.

Students will study closely the properties and characteristics of both cyanobacteria and Martian climatology to develop a series of experiments designed to test this hypothesis. Students will form teams and become experts on various issues surrounding the task. Working with professors and teachers, they will utilize the state-of-the-art equipment in the USM science labs to test their theory. Results will be recorded on an ongoing basis after the experiments begin and data will be presented at the culminating spring 2013 conference at Stennis Space Center. Tentatively, in April of 2014, successful experiments may be replicated in lower gravity conditions on the ISS.

Why Cyanobacteria?

  • Cyanobacteria can freeze solid and survive a thaw, a must in the Martian environment.
  • Cyanobacteria grow and reproduce quickly compared to similar organisms.
  • Thought to be the Earth’s first terraformers, cyanobacteria were some of the first photosynthetic organisms and may have been at least partially responsible for creating the oxygen-rich atmosphere that exists today. Its potential use as an oxygenator in cramped spacecraft and alien climates is of great interest to NASA researchers.

Variables in Planetary Conditions that Students Must Consider

  • Light—Mars is further away from the sun, so light is dimmer.
  • Ultra-violet Radiation – The thin atmosphere of Mars provides less protection against damaging UV.
  • Gravity—Mars has approximately 38% of the gravity of Earth.
  • Temperature—Mars is frozen a majority of the time, but can thaw during the day.
  • Orbit—Mars’ path around the sun is longer, making its year 1.88 times an Earth year, which means it has a longer summer/growing season.
  • Atmosphere—Atmospheric pressure on Mars is only ~1% of the Earth’s. Also, the vast majority of the Martian atmosphere is carbon dioxide.

The Grant


PIONEERING MARS is fully funded by a grant from the NASA International Space Station National Lab Education Project (NASA ISS NLEP - NNX12AK94A). Five NASA ISS NLEP grants were awarded nationally out of hundreds of applicants. Only two will replicate experiments on the ISS. 

The Professors


Julie Cwikla, PhD., Director of Creativity and Innovation in STEM, University of Southern Mississippi

Scott Milroy, PhD., Associate Professor of Marine Science, University of Southern Mississippi (USM)

The Schools


Bay High School, Bay-Waveland School District, AP Biology, Heather Goveia

St. Stanislaus College, Marine Science, Letha Boudreaux

Baker High School, Mobile County Public Schools, Anatomy and Physiology, Scott Nelson

Davidson High School, Mobile County Public Schools, AP Biology, Emily Hosford