According to Elon Musk, space travel to Mars is expected to occur in no less than a decade. This is quite a bold prediction considering human lunar missions. In fact, initial projections for astronauts to return to the moon in 2024 has been pushed back to 2025. Regardless, this doesn’t mean that researchers and scientists aren’t invested in eventually landing on the red planet. But in order to inhabit the planet for any length of time, farming beyond Earth will be necessary. This is why a number of universities and private companies are exploring space gardening on Mars and beyond.
To some extent, astronauts have been farming beyond Earth in a limited capacity. On the International Space Station, NASA has constructed a variety of space gardening systems. These projects strive to deal with issues like microgravity and the use of artificial light. And to a degree, they have had some success. But farming beyond Earth on remote planets requires taking this to the next level. And many other additional challenges exist that pose problems, including the fact that the planets are so distant. Despite this, however, scientists are actively pursuing investigations into space gardening so they’ll be ready when the time comes.
“It actually makes a lot of sense why planetary scientists, whose phenomena are removed in time and space, would think that simulation and replication would be how they could still study that which is remote, because that’s what science has been doing for hundreds of years.” – Lisa Messeri, Anthropologist, Yale University
Simulating Remote Planetary Systems
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to space gardening is simply the lack of access. However, agriculture represents an important part of the future space economy. (Check out this Bold Business 2021 update on our Space Economy series here.) Scientists have learned much from space observation and interplanetary rovers, but this information is far from complete. Actually growing plants in foreign terrestrial soil isn’t possible as of yet. As a result, researchers turn to simulations and replicas of other plants that are called terrestrial analogues. These analogues are areas on Earth that highly resemble terrains and soils of other planets. Or they create “test-tube” simulations that attempt to recreate remote planetary surfaces and atmospheres. This is the only option currently in evaluating which processes best support farming beyond Earth.
In this regard, several such simulations and analogues currently exist. For example, The Haughton-Mars Project explores space gardening on Devon Island in Nunavut, Canada. The uninhabited island is an Artic outpost that mimics the lunar South Pole in many ways. Its dry, permacold atmosphere as well as its valleys and canyons offer some opportunity to explore farming beyond Earth. Other institutions, including Wageningen University in the Netherlands creates “Mars jars” that simulate Martian conditions. Its Food For Mars and Moon project uses such simulations to test pea and potato space gardening. Until actual astronaut landings occur, these represent the best approach currently available to these researchers.
“Mars doesn’t have clouds. We have cloudy days and rainy days here; on Mars, you don’t have those. So overall, you get about 60% of the total energy of light over the Martian year.” – Edward Guinan, Professor of Astrophysics and Planetary Science, Villanova University
Specific Challenges to Space Gardening on Mars
In considering Mars specifically, there are several unique features that pose challenges to space gardening. For one, the atmosphere on Mars is much thinner, and the planet is 50 million miles further away from the sun. This means temperatures are extremely cold, requiring any farming beyond Earth on the planet to take place inside. On a positive note, however, the gravity is 38 percent less on Mars. This means that any water in Martian soil will hang around much longer when compared to Earth. Therefore, plants grown in this type of atmosphere will generally require less water overall.
One of the most notable issues with space gardening on Mars involves its red-colored soil. In addition to being iron-rich, its soil consists of a sand and dust mixture known as regolith. Regolith poses all sorts of difficulties as it blocks solar panels and clogs filters. It also makes it challenging for transportation and damages equipment with moving parts. In addition, regolith also contains a high amount of perchlorates, which are quite hazardous. For farming beyond Earth to be successful on the planet, however, scientists must develop feasible solutions to address these issues.
“You can have the worms in the Martian regolith, which is really important because they can help to transform it from that sandy clay-like texture into an actual soil more similar to Earth through the introduction of organic matter, in the worm castings.” – Alicia Eglin, Villanova University Student Overseeing Mars Garden Project
Early Success with Terrestrial Analogues and Simulations
While challenges are notable, that doesn’t mean farming beyond Earth doesn’t look to be feasible. Several researchers are already showing some success. Using simulated regolith from Hawaiian volcanic cinder, scientists have shown space gardening can yield edible products. For example, The Martian Garden has produced odd-looking radishes and carrots. Those in the Netherlands have grown peas and potatoes. And researchers at Villanova have space gardens that yield hops, peanuts, and Jerusalem artichokes. Though the quality and yields of these vegetables are lacking, researchers are encouraged by their results. They believe these demonstrate that farming beyond Earth will be possible.
Understandably, it will be many years before humankind actually sets foot on Mars or other plants. Therefore, scientists have time to continue their experiments and explorations. But thus far, their early results look promising when it comes to space gardening. Whether it’s hydroponic farming or environmental manipulations of foreign planets, extraterrestrial gardening has potential. And year after year, scientists are inching closer to farming systems that could meet human nutritional needs abroad. Given that this is an important piece of the space travel puzzle, this is definitely encouraging news.