In movies, everything seems so simple. But in order to grow food on Mars, we must create the soil from scratch and build our own mini-biosphere.
The landing of people on Mars will be a landmark event in the history of mankind. Life beyond the terrestrial biosphere remains a dream for many. But the creation of a sustainable settlement on the Red Planet will require the development of its environment. It will be necessary to develop ways of producing food in a place where they are not. After all, supplies from Earth will either be intermittent or they will not exist at all.
In the blockbuster “Martian” 2015, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) famously depicted planting potatoes in an improvised greenhouse after he got into a difficult situation during an epic storm that caused the rest of the crew to stop the mission and fly away without it. Using the vacuum packaging left from the mission, Watney planted the potatoes in the planetary “soil”, extracted water through chemical reactions, and fertilized his burgeoning potato crop with freeze-dried crew waste.
This seems like a fairly simple way to grow plants on Mars. But this is not the case.
“Reality doesn't even come close to a cinematic solution,” said Ralph Fritsche, senior food project manager at Kennedy Space Center, NASA.
NASA plans to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. The head of SpaceX, Ilon Musk, proposed an aggressive campaign of colonization of the planet, based on an interplanetary transport system (SMT). But even if SpaceX has the experience of transporting people to Mars, there is still no plan for how they can live there and produce food at the expense of the earth. Given that shipping food from Earth to Mars will cost about $ 1 billion a year per person, it becomes obvious that we urgently need another plan to supply food to future Martian researchers.
“Ilon Musk presented a difficult challenge to the world,” said Daniel Batcheldor, a professor of physics and space science at the Florida Institute of Technology and the project director of the Space Institute, Buzz Aldrin. “We know that we cannot deliver the mass necessary for the Martian surface sent from Earth. We need to create a stable colony on the Red Planet, which will not depend on earthly supplies. ”
While we are thinking about creating the first Martian colony or support for a small group of NASA astronauts, researchers are working on developing new strategies for growing plants outside the Earth.
Fritsche and his colleague from NASA Trent Smith have teamed up with scientists from the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute to investigate what the real methods of growing food on Mars are. Although the use of astronauts' physical waste as a fertilizer may play a role, we will need everything (from removing toxins from organisms to “designer bacteria”) in order to create the Martian version of the soil that we have on Earth.
“There should be no organic matter in the Martian regolith. And for the processing of nutrients, you will need destructors to destroy what is there and make it available (in the correct form) for use by plants, ”said Fordham Brooke Wheeler, an associate professor at the college of astronautics. “This will be one potential strategy for creating a colony that is more resistant to waste processing, regardless of whether they belong to humans, plants, or any other organic waste.” Wheeler and his colleague Drew Palmer (assistant professor of biological sciences at the Florida Institute of Technology) use a Martian regolith, hoping to explore the process of using their own resources during a human mission on the Red Planet. The simulator (volcanic rock powder from the Hawaiian Islands) does not contain any of the nutrients necessary for plant growth, but most of all resembles Martian regolith.
The lettuce, which was grown only in a Martian simulator (without adding nutrients), produced only small leaves in the laboratory (FIT / Buzz Aldrin Space Institute).
Although the regolith simulator is a good start, Wheeler and Palmer understand their limitations. One of the biggest future challenges is how Martian astronauts will “eliminate” toxic cosmic substances that are known to be present on the planet. As confirmed by NASA's Curiosity Martian Science Laboratory, Martian regolith has been packed with perchlorate salts, which are used in industrial processes on Earth and are known to cause thyroid problems. Removal of perchlorates from the Martian regolith will make the resource suitable for agriculture.
“When we begin the introduction of microbes, we would like to use engineered microbes that can eliminate toxic perchlorates, which will be very much in the soil,” said Palmer. “You can start designing them now, on Earth.”
But this is not the last point. Since there are soil microbes on Mars that form the basis of the life cycles that govern the Earth’s biosphere, we will need to introduce bacteria and strategic plants into the Martian regolith to get the most nutrients. “We believe that in the long term, re-registering microbes and organisms that coexist with plants (on Earth) will create sustainable cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus (on Mars),” said Palmer.
Fertilizers are the raw material of these cycles, so when planning Martian agriculture we must consider how this will be supplied. Will it be supplies from Earth? Or will it be produced locally to reduce the cost and dependence on our planet?
“To complement this system, you need to build more structures,” added Palmer.
Researchers believe that before a person sets foot on the Red Planet, a robotic mission could fly a month earlier and prepare a Martian regolith for agriculture. Farm bots can extract regolith and perform tasks to remove perchlorate, introducing the necessary biology to create the cycles necessary for the survival of plants. The idea is to create viable farms before the human mission arrives. The astronauts will arrive at the ready place with fresh food, as well as life support systems (oxygen supply and adjustment of toxins).
Lettuce leaves are grown in a Martian simulator with added nutrients. The result is healthy leaves (FIT / Buzz Aldrin Space Institute).
Many different problems are associated with the production of products on Mars. But one of the biggest advantages of physical plant growing will be psychological. The head of the experimental project “Veggie” of the International Space Station, which uses hydroponics to supply plants with water and nutrients in microgravity, Trent Smith realized that astronauts at the orbital outpost receive great joy by growing plants in a completely sterile environment away from home. “Because they are on a space station, in a very hostile environment, with all these wires and cables ... But they have these little plants that they care about and that are reminiscent of home,” Smith said. “When we go to Mars, this will be a very important moment.”
Veggie demonstrated the process of growing lettuce, which was done by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly during his one-year mission aboard a space station with Russian astronaut Mikhail Kornienko. But the astronauts remained dependent on earthly supplies. Although hydroponics may have to play a role in supplementing the diets of the Martian explorers, in the end, we must depend on the resources of the Red Planet to create and maintain conditions for life.
“Initially we could do hydroponic farming. Hydroponics is incredibly effective, ”said Smith. “But, if you are going to linger for a long time, then it makes sense to happen on regolithic farming systems. You will have two different ways to grow plants for food. ”
Whatever path you choose, you will have to use technical potential to learn how to re-house in an inhospitable environment.
“It’s as if you’re going back to an early agrarian society when we were just trying to figure out how to till the land,” said Batcheldor. “But instead of fertile soil, we cultivate the Martian soil.”
“Creating a permanent Martian colony will finally fix our presence on the planet,” he added.