Several private companies are planning to build cities on the red planet, so the need to farm Martian soil is becoming a reality.
By Nicole Buckler
Humans are damn inventive. We have learned how to farm land and animals on a huge scale. We have manipulated our environment to our advantage, taking the hard work out of food production so we have more time to play. We have even learned how to skip the “rearing animals” part to make a burger in a lab. We are geniuses at manipulating our environment. What this has done however, is to lead us into the situation that we are breeding out of control like rabbits at a century-long orgy. Unless the whole world institutes a one-child-only policy, we are going to need some new real estate and fast.
The solution? We are moving to Mars.
Many humans feel that the universe is our inheritance. The Mars One project led by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, says it will build a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2025. But the Mars One project isn’t the only outfit headed for the Red Planet. NASA wants to send a manned mission to Mars by 2030. And American entrepreneur Elon Musk has plans to build a city on Mars way before then. Not only is Musk planning a city, he wants to make it fully independent, not relying on us earthlings at all. His drive is to make human life interplanetary, and self-sustaining, in case anything should happen to our own rock. This is exciting stuff. Except there is a lot of work to be done to get us earthlings to where we want to go.
The first things we need to work out once we get to Mars is how the hell are we going to keep ourselves alive? What are settlers going to eat? On the International Space station, astronauts eat freeze-dried food. But their existence there is temporary. This food keeps them alive so they put it up with it knowing it is a short-term arrangement. But no human can be expected to eat this type of food for a lifetime. And in fact this is backed up by science.
The Hawaii Space Exploration Analogue and Simulation Site (HI-SEAS) is a NASA-funded venture. It put six people on a volcano in Hawaii in a contained environment to see how the humans would handle eating freeze-dried foods for long periods of time. They also grew a very limited range of crops themselves to supplement the freeze-dried food. This was intended to simulate how the culinary experience of life on Mars would roughly feel. And for the six people, it was a nasty experience. They experienced “menu fatigue.” They got sick of the food very quickly, lost weight, and their morale dropped. The scientists behind this experiment came to the conclusion that the only way a long-term settlement would work on Mars is if the humans living there could grow food themselves. And if scientists can crack this nut, it would be better for the settlement of Mars. We can’t rocket freeze-dried squid and crackers to Mars for the rest of our lives and theirs. Earthlings residing on Mars will need to learn how to grow food themselves. It is the ultimate concept in future farming.
So what potential does Mars have to support human life? Scientists are currently scrambling to jump on board this fascinating subject, and already some intriguing headway has been made. The ideal scenario would be to grow multiple crops on Martian soil. And not only would it feed settlers, it would also help to “terraform” the planet, taking out the carbon dioxide and replacing it with oxygen, a favourite gas of the human lung. The next experiment undertaken in Hawaii was to try to grow crops in the volcanic soil… it is very similar to soil on Mars.
At the HI-SEAS facility, scientist Angelo Vermeulen not only investigated growing food in Martian-like soil, he also worked out a way for a rudimentary robot to do all of the work for the humans. Obviously, this is safer than sending humans out into an inhospitable environment, outside of the main Martian base, risking their lives for a bean or two. So Vermeulen and an associate Simon Engler, a robotics expert, made remote-controlled farming robots. They needed to know if robots could plant and tend to crops in a remote location. The remote farm included a hydroponics system to keep the crops fed and watered, plus a robotic arm used to tend to the crops and fix problems remotely. And it worked, sort of. Which is great going considering that it was the first crack at this type of farming.
The result? The two scientists managed to germinate salad rocket, different types of lettuce, some spinach, mung beans, broccoli, radish and chard. Great rabbit food: Martian settlers are surely going to be the healthiest settlers in the universe. While this is a great first experiment, I vote that they start working on growing potatoes and fast. Life on Mars without chips doesn’t bear thinking about.
This experiment gives a lot of hope to the idea that there is potential to farm Martian soil. Farming on Martian soil is not only important for terraforming the air. The by-products of the farming, like leaves and roots that are not used, can be composted and recycled back into the Martian soil, making the soil into a substance that would become more-and-more earthling friendly with every round of crops grown. It is the same process that sees volcanic lava fields go from a lifeless sad-looking wasteland to a place where new plants slowly move in and create a fertile green haven with their organic waste.
Ecologist Dr. Wieger Wamelink of the Alterra Institute in the Netherlands has been studying what plants will survive on Mars, and also what plants will survive on the moon, just for the fun of comparison. Because the plan to send humans to Mars does not include a return trip, the basic necessities would have to be satisfied on location. “Mars is still a long way off,” says Wamelink, explaining his plans. “But the moon is closer, so it would be more realistic to establish a colony there. What’s more, we already know the mineral composition of the soil on the moon, and of moon dust. So what I’m aiming to find out now is whether plants will grow in moon substrate, or whether certain essential elements are lacking. This has never been done before. But we are gradually discovering more about Mars, which is why the planet has been included in this research.”
Wamelink compared the requirements of certain species of plants with the mineral composition of the soil on the moon and Mars. And he was able to determine which plant species would theoretically be capable of growing in moon dust or on Martian soil. “We have allowed certain species of wild plants and agricultural crops to germinate in pots of artificial moon and Martian soil.” These soil samples were made as a direct copy from soil samples gathered by NASA. The growth of the plants were compared using moon soil, Martian soil, and plants grown in soil taken from near the Rhine River. “Our research is based on the premise that an atmosphere will be available to the colony, perhaps in domes or buildings. We are also assuming the presence of water, either from the moon or Mars or transported from Earth. The plants would produce oxygen and recycle carbon dioxide, ultimately creating a kind of ecosystem.”
The good news is that all seeds in the Martian soil burst forward into life. And brace yourself for this…the seeds in the Martian soil did even better than those planted in soil from near the Rhine River. It’s enough to give us earthlings an inferiority complex. To Wamelink’s surprise, the plants in the Martian soil grew well; some even blossomed. “I had expected the germination process to work, but I thought the plants would die due to a lack of nutrients,” Wamelink explains. The soil analysis showed, however, that Mars soil contains more nutrients than expected. In addition to phosphorus and iron oxides, the scientist found nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient. Professor Leo Marcelis of Wageningen University is advisor in the Mars One project and one of Wamelink’s colleagues. He is looking into cultivation systems that should make growing vegetables on Mars possible.
Understanding the soil is just one part of the puzzle, but there are plenty more challenges on the red planet. “As it is impossible to take everything from earth, we will need to produce food if we want to go into space. This requires knowledge on cultivation systems that function well in Martian conditions.” Take for example, the problem of low gravity on Mars. This creates problems with the water supply. It makes it difficult for water to run downwards. The low gravity also means there are issues with the exchange of gases by the plant such as carbon dioxide and oxygen. This causes them to grow more slowly and evaporate less water. Additionally, Mars hardly has any atmosphere, the temperatures are low and there is much less light than on earth. On Mars plants would be cultivated in enclosed plant growth facilities, possibly equipped with LED lamps. But which colour is best for plant growth and where would the electricity come from?
As Marcelis points out, many of these issues are linked to current research at Wageningen UR. His plan is to test these cultivation systems on earth. “It involves a total system design. In addition to controlled cultivation systems, complete recycling will also be essential on Mars.” According to the scientists, the research has a lot of potential and will provide a wealth of knowledge which may also be applicable here on earth. Research into the cultivation of plants in difficult conditions is not only relevant to future inhabitants of Mars, but also to those who wish to remain on the blue planet. Says Wamelink, “Martian soil consists of volcanic rock. If we learn to bring it into cultivation, we can use the knowledge to cultivate crops on difficult soils here on earth.”
Insights into more effective recycling of water, gas and nutrients and the closing of cycles are also possible. The development of high-tech automated and optimised cultivation systems, sensors that continuously monitor the needs of plants, and plant cultivation in low light conditions are also an important spin-off of the project. Wamelink and Marcelis believe that residing on Mars will only be feasible if humans can achieve the basic condition of food production. It is much cheaper than sending food from earth and good for the psychology of those living on Mars. “I am convinced that Wageningen UR can develop a complete food cultivation system for Mars within ten years,” Wamelink concludes. “Knowledge of complete controllable cultivation systems, plant varieties related to soils, food security, and entomology for bee pollination are all areas Wageningen UR has in-house. So if we are asked to develop cultivation systems for Mars, we can make a flying start.”
The next step in the experiment is to see if the plants are safe to eat. Another part of the puzzle is what the Martian soils contain — they are heavy on the heavy metals. The plants would take these heavy metals up during growth, and if humans eat them, we could be sicklings. So we haven’t conquered extra-terrestrial farming just yet, but with a bit of soil manipulation and some good lighting, robot arms and some damn brave people to go to Mars on a one-way mission, we can consider ourselves an interplanetary species.
Any farmers out there want to volunteer for the ultimate farming mission? ■