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Food Production on Mars – Feasible or a Flight of Fancy?
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Is a Martian Veggie Garden Even Possible?
How close are we to achieving a keystone goal on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – on Mars rather than right here on Earth? Closer than we were 12 months ago. Right now, there is a slew of really promising research results which, when bundled together, could mean planet-grown Martian meals are not that far away!
Lots of Challenges to Overcome
There are, of course, significant hurdles to overcome, like freezing temperatures, low gravity and no natural, or at this point, man-made water sources. Despite the challenges, the trickiest part of propagating anything edible at all is the poor quality of Martian soil… or, more aptly, Martian dust!
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No Essential Growth Components
We all know plants require water, sunlight and nutrient-rich soil in which to germinate and thrive. With two out of three vital growth components missing in action and sunlight weak at best, how is it even going to be possible to sustain life of any kind, let alone a million-strong Martian colony?
Calcium Perchlorate is the Big Curve Ball
It is not only the basic elements required for agriculture that need to be produced onsite, or supplied from Earth, there is another major curve ball in the mix. It is a toxic mineral called Calcium Perchlorate (Ca (CIO4)2) which, in chemistry terms, is a negative ion consisting of one chlorine atom (Cl) and four oxygen atoms (O4).
Why is Calcium Perchlorate Such an Issue?
Here on Earth, Calcium Perchlorate is used in the manufacture of flammable stuff like solid rocket fuel, signal flares and matches. On Mars, it makes up more than 1% of the planet’s surface.
What that essentially means is much of the surface area of the Red Planet is permeated with a salt-like substance which, when inhaled or ingested, is lethal to human beings.
A Double-Sided Solution
All things considered, you would think that fact alone would deter anyone from even considering setting up a veggie garden on Mars. Well, it hasn’t.
In fact, scientists have come up with an idea that may not only bring us one giant step closer to a verdant Red Planet, but could be the answer to the Martian oxygen woes.
For those of you who do not know too much about our neighbouring planet, the Martian atmosphere consists almost entirely of carbon dioxide – good for plants… but not such much for us lot down here!
Wash Away the Toxin and…
Researchers have come up with an ingenious solution that emulates a natural microbial process. They have produced a catalyst from commonly found ingredients that can break Calcium Perchlorate down into Chloride. When refined for an application on Mars, this process could be used to wash the toxin from the soil.
Although not viable on its own, at least the treated soil starter-pack on the Red Planet will no longer be deadly. That is one massive break through. Here is another… and it has nothing whatsoever to do with our Springbok Casino no deposit bonus codes and how easy they are to redeem onsite!
… Harvest Oxygen!
When coupled with other processes, the catalyst effect mentioned above can enable the separation of the O2 atoms from the ion. Oxygen can then be harvested, stored and used for breathing on a CO2 rich planet located more than 340 million kilometres away!
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How About Hydroponic Pods?
Although that is one major agricultural problem solved, there is still the conundrum of a base soil that is completely bereft of microbes and nutrients. Growing edible plants in nutrient-rich hydroponic pods is the obvious answer – but can you imagine the logistics involved in getting the required materials to Mars? Let alone the cost.
The initial fertiliser would be supplied from Earth, but thereafter any organic matter – from human excrement to the parts of plants that are not used as food – would have to be intensively used as composting.
Mimicking Martian Dust and Finding Compatible Plants
Biologists and dieticians are currently exploring another avenue – identifying and growing plants in soils that closely resemble Martian dust. The volcanic soils of Hawaii and the badly leached loam of Antarctica have been used in experiments. To date, the results have been reasonably positive.
Provided the plants were germinated and propagated in a controlled environment – 22 degrees Celsius in temperature and around 70% humidity – and fertilised with nitrogen, potassium and calcium, they survived and even flourished.
Not a Resounding Success… Quite Yet
The most successful plant foods in this scenario were lettuce and moth bean, a distant cousin of the soybean. Unfortunately, neither plant is all that versatile or even nutritious, but it does prove that under the right conditions, it may be possible to grow food directly on the dusty surface of Mars.
How About Water?
All living organisms need water to survive but, by all accounts, Mars is a dry planet. As NASA’s ingenious little machine MOXIE has proved, anything from oxygen to water can be produced on Mars.
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The good news is edible plants that do eventually grow on the Red Planet will need less water than their counterparts on Earth. How come? It has all to do with gravity… and low gravity to be precise.
The Effect of Low Gravity on Water Retention
Mars has a gravity of roughly 35% that of the Earth. As a result, everything including water is effectively three times lighter. That means the Martian soil is capable of holding more water.
What is more, the water and added nutrients will drain away more slowly. The end result? Veggie gardens that stay moist for longer, and ones that hopefully provide a much higher yield.
The Conclusion? Food Production on Mars is Doable!
In the initial stages, propagating foods in self-contained growth environments constructed on Mars will be sufficient to sustain the very first immigrants. As the colony grows, food production will obviously have to increase and be totally self-sustainable.
All things considered, fulfilling basic human needs as per Maslow’s theory might, however, be doable after all. The first pioneers will have to build vast networks of underground farming tunnels using solar panels, fibre optics and curved mirrors – like those found on the Meerkat telescope – to provide the required light.
To many of us mere mortals, all this may seem like a sci-fi fantasy. To the people working on ways of making Mars more hospitable, it is only a matter of time before a permanent self-sustaining Martian colony is established!
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