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Farming on Mars is More Complicated Than it Seems

Nov 23, 2016 04:56 AM EST
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In movies, growing food on Mars may seem easy. But according to scientists, establishing a sustainable life on the Red Planet is a complex task that involves creating soil from scratch and a billion dollar worth of food supply missions.
(Photo : Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Mankind conquering Mars will become one of the most important events in human history. But while the plan to land a manned spacecraft on the Red Planet is already in the pipeline, there is still the problem of establishing a sustainable life beyond Earth - the most crucial of which is how to produce food.

In the 2015 blockbuster movie "The Martian," astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) lived off potatoes planted in a makeshift greenhouse in NASA's base on Mars. Watney used vacuum-packed potatoes and planted them using Martian soil, created water out of chemical reactions and used the crew's freeze-dried feces as fertilizer.

But in real life, cultivating plants on Mars is not that easy, Ralph Fritsche, senior project manager for food production at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, said in an interview with Seeker.

While NASA and Elon Musk's SpaceX may already have the expertise to transport humans to Mars, there is still the question of how people could stay on the planet and produce food. First, sending food from Earth to Mars could cost about $1 billion per person per year, which means there should be another way to feed Mars explorers.

Fritsche teamed up with scientists at the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute to investigate how humans could produce food in Mars. According to the team, a Martian version of the Earth's soil should be created, complete with toxin removal and "designer bacteria."

Brooke Wheeler and Drew Palmer, biologists at Florida Tech, are investigating a regolith stimulant consisting of powdered volcanic rock from Hawaii to be used as Martian regolith, which the scientists hope could help in providing resources for Martian agriculture.

According to Palmer, bacteria and strategic plant life should be introduced to the Martian regolith as Mars doesn't have the soil microbes that provide the necessary nutrients to plants.

"We believe that, in the long term, by reincorporating the microbes and organisms that co-exist with plants [on Earth] will be able to create sustainable nitrogen and phosphorus cycles [on Mars]," Palmer said in a statement.

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