Here's How Extraterrestrial Farming Will Work on Mars
Landing humans on Mars would be a momentous event in human history. To live beyond Earth's biosphere is a dream to many, but establishing a sustainable presence on the Red Planet will require mastering its environment. We would need to devise ways of producing food where none exists, because depending on supplies from Earth would neither be sustainable or practical.
Whether we're thinking about setting up our first Mars colony or supporting a small team of NASA astronauts, researchers are currently developing novel strategies for growing plants beyond Earth.
Fritsche and his NASA colleague Trent Smith have teamed up with scientists at the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute to investigate how we might really grow food on Mars. Though using astronauts' physical waste for fertilizer might play a role, everything from toxin removal to "designer bacteria" will be needed to create a Martian version of the soil that we take for granted here on Earth.
"There shouldn't be any organic matter in Mars regolith" — powdered rock on the planet's surface from eons of meteorite impacts — "and, in order to recycle the nutrients, you need to have decomposers to break down what's there to make it available, in the right form, for plants to use," said assistant professor Brooke Wheeler, of Florida Tech's College of Aeronautics. "That would be one potential strategy of making a colony more sustainable to recycle waste, whether that's human waste or leftover food for composting, or any other [organic] waste products to help build that into the design of the habitat."
"One of the things we're keenly interested in is when we start to introduce microbes, we'd like to use engineered microbes that could eliminate things like the toxic perchlorates that will be in a lot of the soil," said Palmer. "You can engineer bacteria now, already on Earth, to do that."
But it doesn't stop there. As Mars doesn't have the soil microbes that form the backbone of the vital cycles that drive Earth's biosphere, we will need to introduce the bacteria and strategic plant life to the Martian regolith to ensure the plants receive the necessary nutrients.
"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]," said Palmer.
The raw material behind these cycles is fertilizer, so when planning Mars agriculture, we need to consider how that will be sourced. Will it be shipped from Earth? Or will it be produced on site to reduce cost and the dependence on Earth?
"That's just more structures you have to build to supplement this [system]," Palmer added.
"Initially, as we go for months at a time, we might just do hydroponic farming… hydroponics are incredibly efficient," Smith noted. "But if you're going for an extended amount of time, then it makes sense to switch over to a regolith-farming system. You'll have these two different ways to grow plants for food."
Whichever way you look at it, we will need to use our technological prowess to re-learn how to farm in an inhospitable environment.
"It will basically be like going back to an early agrarian society, when we were learning how to farm the earth," said Batcheldor. "But instead of using fertile soil, we've basically got to make the soil on Mars."
"Establishing a permanent colony on Mars is going to be the ultimate act of sustainability for humanity," he added.
So this project would seem to benefit from "permaculture thinking"
some enterprising young permies might want to get involved
not only to help on Mars but here
by getting permaculture into "mainstream thinking"
"hey, if they think it would work on Mars, I bet it would work on Earth!"
I'm seriously interested in this! If I was younger I'd probably even go to university to jump through the hoops necessary to make it possible to have a real tilt at this.
It'd make Geoff Lawton's dead sea valley site look like a walk in the park! One of the things about space though is the need to build circular life and waste systems which in itself is very interesting.
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