Growing crops on Martian soil? Sounds insane right?
Students from the University Of Southampton Space Flight Society (SSFS), if the human race ever wants to colonize Mars we need to utilize its resources to grow food which would be the very first stage of the terraforming process, this has now become a reality thanks to the postgraduate students from Southampton. (#lettuceOnMars)
This experiment utilises a small green house that can grow lettuces under the atmospheric conditions on mars, with the goal of the project to show that it is feasible to grow crops on Mars, leaving the dependency from earths materials behind to grow such plant life.
So how did they do this?
The greenhouse consists of an aircraft grade aluminium case with a polycarbonate dome, which has been ergonomically shaped into a curve to prevent dust getting into the habitat, it also blocks the ultraviolet radiation from the sun too and acts totally separates the plant life to the rest of the Martian environment.
The system also contains pumps for pressurising the thin Martian atmosphere, and filters to keep out the dust, water, pH balancing chemicals and a small bank of UV lights.
But why UV lights if a shield is there to protect the plants?
What is known about martian surface is that the sunlight on Mars is only half as bright as it is on earth, so the lights are required to provide the extra UV light the plants need on the surface.
Why lettuce out of all plants?
The reasons for choosing lettuce is that it:
- Has already been in space several times
- Can grow quickly
- Compact enough to travel in spaceflight
There is already a mission underway to send human life to Mars, so should this experiment be used for this mission the lettuce seeds will be frozen for the seven month voyage to the red planet, in a unmanned lander in 2018.
Where on the planet they will be land has not been determined yet but mars one says that the most likely place will be the normal plains of Mars between 40 and 50 latitude, as the area to be a future colony due to the air pressure being slightly higher than other parts of the planet.
When on the surface the green house will be heated to 21-24 oC then pressurised using the atmosphere of mars, a nutrient laced water vapour will then be added to the plants, here oxygen will be generated by electrolysis.
Once the seeds have been germinated the martian sun will used alongside the UV LED lamps, and cameras will be set up to track the growth of the lettuces over a four week period. Once the experiment is complete a heating unit will be turned up very high to kill the lettuces killing any living organisms that might be in the green house to avoid contamination to the Martian environment.
“To live on other planets we need to grow food there. No-one has ever actually done this and we intend to be the first,” says project leader Suzanna Lucarotti. “This plan is both technically feasible and incredibly ambitious in its scope, for we will be bringing the first complex life to another planet. Growing plants on other planets is something that needs to be done, and will lead to a wealth of research and industrial opportunities that our plan aims to bring to the University of Southampton. We have tackled diverse sets of engineering challenges, including aeroponic systems, bio filters, low power gas pressurization systems and failsafe planetary protection systems and then integrated them all into one payload on a tight mass, power and cost budget.”
Below is a block diagram of the experiments system: