Roots in the sky: an astronaut’s guide to farming on Mars

Beyond M&Ms, space espresso, and astronaut ice cream, a lot of work remains when it comes to securing nutrition in space. Knowing how to cultivate, culture and cycle consumable nutrients will be necessary for humans to successfully settle deep space. And it might be helpful for feeding hungry mouths on our home planet, too.

As our planetary next-door neighbor, farming on Mars seems like a natural starting point to investigate. However, such lofty field goals are not without their obstacles. Many resource-finding challenges are in store for future Terran transplants, including locating water and nutrients, removing toxins, and, perhaps most ironically, finding room to grow. On Earth and off it, one of the biggest obstacles to farming is space itself.

Vertical farming is a great example of technology transfer, from up to down in this case. NASA started growing plants in space without soil or water in 1997. Starting from either cuttings or seeds, plants engineered to grow rapidly are misted with liquid nutrients. Plants grown by aeroculture appear to take up more nutrients. Without gravity to hold them down, they also grow faster — in the case of tomato plants, more than twice as fast. Small, inflatable aeroponic food systems can grow more than 1,000 bunches of vegetables in less than a month, as NASA reports.

Farming microbes might also be a necessary way to bulk up the nutritional and caloric content of space diets for every life form on a Mars mission. People are not the only ones who munch on microbes for their health, plants, do, too. Adding microbes is a critical step toward making Martian regolith — a term used to describe sterile material — into a plant-friendly growth medium, as Utah State University notes. But before we add nutrients to non-living Mars dust, turn it into soil, and start farming on Mars, we will need to make sure we remove the poison.

That poison comes in the form of chlorine atoms connected to four oxygen atoms, a.k.a. perchlorates. These compounds are produced by living organisms as well as inorganic processes. On Earth, they are found in many places, including the groundwater near NASA JPL. On Mars, the Curiosity Rover picked them up, literally, while looking for signs of organic life in the regolith, according to NASA.

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