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Pressing Mars Issue: How Will Humans Grow Food on the Red Planet?

Oct 06, 2016 05:15 AM EDT
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Astronauts were able to grow food aboard the International Space Station (ISS), the first attempt of farming outside the Earth, but will this be possible on Mars?
(Photo : NASA via Getty Images))

Astronauts were able to grow food aboard the International Space Station (ISS), the first attempt of farming outside the Earth, but will this be possible on Mars?

SpaceX, NASA and other spaceflight companies already established the clear possibility of bringing humans to Mars, but a new pressing issue is the potential source of food on the red planet.

If a Mars colony will be established, the main priority is to develop human habitation capable of preserving life. Then everything else follows like food. It may be premature to think about Martian farming, but if the developments follow the current momentum, it won't be long when the community on Mars will have to grow their own food in order to survive.

Currently, researchers from the Florida Institute of Technology is studying the process of growing lettuce using Martian regolith simulant and added nutrients comparing it with potting soil and simulant without nutrients. The research is beneficial for long haul deep space explorations.

The challenge of this horticultural research is to discover ways to germinate plants that yield food in an icy, toxic and dry planet such as Mars. So far, the experiments have no evident veggies or vines yet as the experimental garden is still in its infancy stage. Scientists are growing Outredgeous lettuce, a type of red romaine in the simulated Martian garden. The experiment is using different soil conditions to find out which one will yield the best result. Scientists are using common potting soil, simulant Martian materials also known as Mars regolith, with added nutrients and the last one is simulated Mars material without added components.

"We have to get the regolith right or anything we do won't be valid," Andy Aldrin, director of the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute, said in a statement.

Compared to the soil found on Earth, Martian soil has no other helpful nutrients and very few minerals that plants need in order to thrive and survive. To make the research more difficult, Martian regolith is known to be harmful to humans and to plants. The challenge is to find a way to reverse the toxic effect, inject nutrients into the soil and to successfully germinate plants on the red planet.

But the scientists know that their experimentation won't be able to yield actual results until such time that they will be able to get their hands on a real Martian soil. Experts predict that it might happen 15 years from now. So while waiting for the actual sample, the researchers will have to make do with simulated Martian soil by using data beamed back by NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover.

The researchers believe that it may be possible by eliminating toxic minerals from the soil and injecting it with the necessary nutrients to enable plants to survive. This research is deemed necessary not only to make Martian colony sustainable but also to lower cost of tickets to Mars.

Elon Musk said his estimated ticket to Mars is currently $10 billion per head but with technology and on-Mars mining systems, they might be able to lower it to $200,000. With Martian sustainable farming, it has the potential to even go lower. But all these will only be pursued once mankind was able to get to Mars, the latest by 2025.


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