Greening the Red Planet

By Sophie Harrington

It’s a big universe out there, and it takes a long time to get anywhere. Even just heading to Mars would take us over 6 months. A bit further than popping down to the pub then! But if NASA and a whole host of other private groups get their way, it won’t be too long before we’re sending humans out to Mars.

Mizuna growing on the ISS (credit NASA)

Mizuna growing on the ISS (credit NASA)

The logistics of the operation are still being worked out. Some argue it’s better to send astronauts on a one-way mission, setting up a bare-bones colony that will grow over time as more and more colonists make the voyage to the Red Planet. It would be handy not to carry all the fuel needed to launch a rocket off of Mars, but sending humans on a one-way trip might be a bit too much for NASA. Private groups, like Mars One, might seem more likely to support such a remarkable attempt, but it’s unclear where their funding will come from.

Whether or not we send humans to stay on Mars to begin with, it can’t be denied that colonising another planet would certainly capture the imagination. But what would that really entail? It’s well and good to talk about sending humans to Mars, but how on earth are we going to survive?

Enter plants, which will probably be our most prized possession on Mars, and in outer space for that matter. Even Apollo astronauts grew tired of their space-certified food, and they were only in space for a matter of days. While the food has definitely improved, the sheer delight of ISS crewmembers when they were able to have a few mouthfuls of fresh Mizuna, grown on the spacecraft, suggests it still leaves much to be desired.

Artist's conception of a greenhouse on Mars (credit NASA)

Artist’s conception of a greenhouse on Mars (credit NASA)

NASA recognises that to send astronauts on long-term missions, some form of fresh food will likely be necessary. Besides the culinary and psychological benefits of fresh veg, hardly any of the food packages currently in use on the ISS would survive the length of a trip to Mars. Sending astronauts up with lettuce, tomatoes, rocket, and even courgette could provide badly needed nutrition while livening up the interior of the spacecraft. Who said interior design wasn’t important in space?

Once on Mars, one of the first structures built by the colonists would have to be a greenhouse, where vegetables can continue to be cultivated. In the long term, we would be able to grow more intensive crops such as maize and wheat, which while requiring refining to be edible would help bulk up a diet, and reduce the dependence of the colonists on food supplies from the home planet.

Some researchers have even found that plants can grow perfectly well on Mars-simulant soil, in some cases even better than on Earth soil! Perhaps colonists may start gardening outside, beginning a process of terraforming that could change the face of Mars itself.

It might not be called the Red Planet for long!

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