A civilization begins when it starts farming. This has been true throughout human evolution. And it will probably hold true on Mars as well. But one of the biggest challenges facing our mission is “how do you feed 1 million people on Mars?”
We could bring along packaged goods, bottled water and dehydrated foods, but that’s just a short term fix. The real problems lie in creating a sustainable system of growing healthy, natural foods in a completing foreign soil and environment.
A quick refresher on Martian conditions:
Mars surface gravity
- 62% lower than it is on Earth. 100 kg (220.4 lbs) on Earth = 38 kg (83.7 lbs) on Mars.
Mars average temperature
- Very cold. Averaging -63 °C (3 °F) compared to Earth’s 14 °C (57 °F).
Mars soil composition
- iron-rich and nutrient poor soil with rocky outcroppings, high sand dunes and loose sand, including rocks with a wide range of sizes from large boulders to caked silt.
Mars oxygen level
- 0.1% (compared to 21% on Earth)
- There is no rain
on Mars because the low temperatures and pressures mean water can only exist as vapor or ice. Snow occasionally forms in the upper atmosphere but does not reach the ground.
So how do you begin farming without access to water, fertile soil and mild temperatures? Due to these limiting factors (and others
), Earth-based plants and crops will not grow naturally in Martian soil without significant help.
(NASA is experimenting
with growing plants in a simulated Martian environment with (left to right) potting soil, regolith simulant with added nutrients, and simulant without nutrients.)
(Astronaut Mark Watney, played by actor Matt Damon in the film “The Martian” was able to grow potatoes on Mars and there is some proof to back this up
(Dr. Bruce Bugbee, Ph.D., director of the plants, soils and climate department at Utah State University has already started growing lettuce
in his lab replicating the Martian environment)
Although farming in the soil on Mars may require fertilizer and added nutrients to produce crops, there is also a chance that greenhouses and hydroponics could play a larger role in cultivation on Mars. For instance, read about how Dr. Gene Giacomelli, a plant scientist, was able to farm on Antarctica
, with conditions similar to the barren soil of Mars.
(Future astronauts may grow some of their meals inside greenhouses, such as this Martian growth chamber
, where fruits and vegetables could be grown hydroponically, without soil.)