Photo: At the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, an 18 foot long, 7 foot, 3 inch diameter lunar greenhouse chamber is equipped as a prototype bioregenerative life support system. Credits: University of Arizona.
Dreams of life on Mars are slowly becoming a reality, as NASA has been hard at work addressing the many challenges human beings will face. One of the most vital challenges is to create a sustainable farming system, where people could grow crops within the unearthly environs of the Martian landscape.
Last month, Peruvian scientist David Ramirez announced that he had cultivated potatoes could be grown on conditions that simulate the environment of Mars. Potatoes, famously known to stave off famine, are just one of the vegetables that could be harvested in “Martian Gardens,” the new project from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the Florida Tech Buzz Aldrin Space Institute in Melbourne, Florida.
The cornerstone of the project is the cultivation of Martian soil and the crops it could sustain. “Soil, by definition, contains organics; it has held plant life, insects, worms. Mars doesn’t really have soil,” said Ralph Fritsche, the senior project manager for food production at Kennedy Space Center, in a news statement.
Mars, however, is covered with crushed volcanic rock known as regolith, which contains toxic chemicals—and no organic life. When faced with this challenge, scientists created 100 pounds of Martian soil simulant to create the conditions necessary for a study.
They planted 30 seeds in simulant-only tubes, to discover half died, and of the remaining crops, the roots were not as strong as those potted in soil from the earth. Adding to this they discovered germination rates were 2-3 days slower, indicating growth rates in Martian farming would require their own schedule.
In response to these findings, scientists have developed a long-term nine-month study that includes farming of radishes, Swiss chard, kale, Chinese cabbage, snow peas, dwarf peppers and tomatoes.
The results of the study have not yet been announced, but in the interim, NASA continues to conduct additional studies farming in greenhouses aboard the International Space Station. After all, the trip to Mars is estimated to take 2.5 years, and NASA is aims to equip astronauts with the capabilities to grow and harvest their own food while in space. Ultimately, the trip to Mars is no longer a question of if—but when.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.