U.A. scientists make gardens for Mars

A group of University of Arizona scientists meet to discuss the viability of a habitat on Mars. From left to right, Gene Giacomelli, Alfred McEwen and Wolfgang Fink. (Photo by: Tanner Clinch
A group of University of Arizona scientists meet to discuss the viability of a habitat on Mars. From left to right, Gene Giacomelli, Alfred McEwen and Wolfgang Fink. (Photo by: Tanner Clinch

Can humans grow food on Mars in the same way that Matt Damon’s character did in the popular new movie “The Martian”?

University of Arizona scientists say yes, but not necessarily in the fashion that the hero of the story, Mark Watney, did. Researchers at the UA have been working for years on ways to make a habitat on Mars a reality.

Gene Giacomelli, director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the UA, does research which focuses on making fruits and vegetables in greenhouses, including ones that simulate environments that can be found on the moon and Mars. According to him, it would be possible to make enough food on Mars for about half of the daily calories you would need. The rest would have to be brought in, such as cornmeal, flour or rice.

The most elegant solution that scientists have come up with is to create a greenhouse that would arrive before the astronauts touch down, set itself up, and began to harvest plants and purify water, “as well as having a nice salad when you arrive,” said Giacomelli. “Long trip for a salad I guess.”   

A lot of his research has application here on earth. Growing plants in greenhouses often requires less raw resources than it would to grow them in a non-controlled environment.

“We would be under such restrictive resources when we go there if we can produce food to keep a person alive, then we can bring that back to Earth for an Earth application,” Giacomelli said. “As our resources become less and less available, water energy, nutrition –nutrients for plants — we can already be efficient in using them and keep our food systems going.”

Autonomous food harvesting systems, such as ones that would be used in a Martian habitat, have been used on Earth. According to Giacomelli, humans are still better at harvesting fruiting bodies such as strawberries, cucumbers and tomatoes. Robotic harvesting systems are more adept at harvesting leafy greens than humans are, like the vegetables that would be grown on mars.  

Hydroponics would be the best way to do this, according to Giacomelli. Using an entirely water-based system would eliminate the chances that there was something deleterious to the growth of plants in the soil on Mars.

Strong evidence for liquid water was found by Alfred McEwen, a planetary scientist at the UA, and his team with the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The Water was found in seasonal flows, however this water is highly salty, and wouldn’t be very friendly to the growth of plants. Water would have to come from the ice deposits that are common on Mars, but that water is much more close to the surface than depicted in the movie, according to McEwen.

Scale Model for the HiRISE imaging system aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which helped McEwen and his team find strong evidence for liquid water on Mars. The HiRISE experiment also imaged the landing sight in "The Martian" which can be seen on their website. (Photo by: Tanner Clinch
Scale Model for the HiRISE imaging system aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which helped McEwen and his team find strong evidence for liquid water on Mars. The HiRISE experiment also imaged the landing sight in “The Martian” which can be seen on their website. (Photo by: Tanner Clinch

“Matt Damon did not have to blow himself up to get water, it certainly makes a good movie though,” said McEwen referencing a scene where the man stuck on Mars uses explosives to access ice water below the surface. Ice would be less than a few feet below the surface in most places and would be easy to dig up, according to McEwen.  

According to the panel, the technology exists today to set up what would be a small working habitat on Mars that could sustain life. The fundamental processes have been demonstrated. The bigger problem is the psychological one, spending six months traveling to a new planet without a guarantee that there would be a return trip would be difficult to comprehend.

“The real challenges are on the biological side,” said Wolfgang Fink, who studies autonomous robotic space exploration at the UA. According to him, the doses of radiation that the protagonist in the movie would’ve been subject to would have been fatal. The effects of those doses of radiation have not been thoroughly studied

“Cancer is one effect of radiation, so is early onset dementia,” said  McEwen. “The conditions on Mars make Antarctica look like a wonderful place to vacation,”

Currently, the best solution for dealing with the radiation outside of our atmosphere would be to build a habitat under the surface or in a lava tube in order to use the surface of the planet as a shield.

“The purpose of going there is to walk around and look at things and find things,” said Giacomelli. “If you have to live in a lava tube all the time it’s not very exciting, but you’ll live longer.”

When asked if they would want to live on the red planet, all three scientists sheepishly said they wouldn’t and they would leave that to the younger generation.   

“People are travelers, they just want to explore,” Giacomelli said. “I would probably be a sheep herder in the mountains of northern Italy right now if people didn’t explore.”

Tanner Clinch is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at tclinch1@email.arizona.edu

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