Building the foundations of a Martian food system

How would you go about building a food system on Mars? Three scientists look at the challenges presented by the Red Planet and explain why the exercise could be very relevant to Earth too.

For food production systems to succeed on Mars, it will require multi-disciplinary science to sustain human populations in hostile environments. In many cases, such technological solutions will already be in commercial use for applications on Earth and so can be repurposed. These multifaceted challenges mean that technological solutions do not always have to be ‘high-tech’ – instead, they must be multi-layered and appropriate, i.e., not ‘over-tech’.

The universal sustenance cell
A blend of highly advanced science, technologies, and biological systems will be required to produce food, sustainably and efficiently in hostile environments. Although a ‘has not yet been created, we can envisage that the following would serve as key aspects and components of such a multifaceted controlled environment food production system. 

Hydroponic systems could be a potential option for use within a USC. In addition, scientists may turn to algaeponic technologies. With more than 10 times the growth rate compared with terrestrial plants and requiring just a tenth of the landmass to produce equivalent biomass, algae are a sustainable crop source. Algae do not require clean water and could be used in part to treat water.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one technology that would no doubt prove invaluable. These are computer programs that mimic human intelligence, using logic, ‘if – then’, decision trees.  Machine learning (ML) and deep thinking are subsets of AI and permit the AI to learn through the data. Being software applications, AI can run from mobile phone scale equipment, the meaning of all the technological deployments required, AI is likely to be the most versatile.  

The capability for artificial intelligence does not end there though, as soft robotics are also likely to be useful in a hostile environment. Mimicking the gentle touch and movement of human hands, an end effector (gripper) at the end of a robot arm can pick up and manipulate objects. In hostile environments, robots will be easier to maintain compared to their human counterparts. 

The future of farming and food production will rely on an array of technologies as we begin to see more hostile environments and this, in turn, will create new technologies and practices necessary to support food production on Mars. A USC is likely to be one of the pre-requisites for humans to secure our future on Earth and at the same time enable us also to become a space-faring species. This is no moon shot, it is an Earth shot with a Mars rebound.

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