What will humans eat on Mars? It’s a daunting question: the red planet’s frigid average temperature is around negative 80 degrees Fahrenheit and its thin atmosphere is comprised of 95.32 percent carbon dioxide. But not to worry, future astronauts. NASA’s on it, as are several other institutions worldwide. Inhabitat rounded up six exciting space farming projects revealing the progress scientists have made on the issue of sustainable space cuisine.
Scientists from the International Potato Center, NASA’s Ames Research Center, and Peru’s University of Technology and Engineering recently showed the 2015 movie The Martian may have not just been science fiction after all. Inside a CubeSat, a small satellite in which the scientists could simulate Mars conditions, they were able to sprout potatoes, the crop of choice for astronaut Mark Watney in the film. Their research shows maybe we could grow those tubers on Mars after all, but also could offer insight into how to cultivate crops here on Earth in climate change-impacted regions.
Wageningen University scientists in the Netherlands have also been growing crops in Mars-like soil. They successfully cultivated ten crops – like tomatoes, rye, and peas – in dirt provided by NASA that came largely from a Hawaii volcano, but feared the resulting food might be filled with heavy metals. Further tests showed they didn’t have to worry quite so much: at least four of the crops do not contain heavy metals like cadmium, lead, or arsenic and are edible. The Wageningen team hopes to continue their research and raise more money for their project.
International Space Station (ISS) astronauts are in on the space farming effort too. In 2014, Orbital Technologies Corporation’s Veggie system was deployed to the ISS, and recently in late 2016, NASA checked in with space gardener astronaut Shane Kimbrough who has harvested multiple batches of lettuce on the space station. The experiment not only gives astronauts the chance to nibble on some rare fresh greens harvested every ten days or so, but will also further NASA’s knowledge of how different life forms perform in zero gravity environments.
The Mars Plant Experiment (MPX) was a small, self-contained greenhouse with enough Earth air to last 15 days and around 200 seeds of the flowering plant Arabidopsis used often in research. The little greenhouse would have hitched a ride to Mars aboard a rover for the 2020 mission. One of 58 proposed experiments, MPX didn’t make the list of seven selected payload proposals NASA announced a little over two months after Inhabitat’s article, but it’s still an intriguing idea for how humans might go about growing plants on Mars.
Forget freeze-dried ice cream. NASA’s Advanced Food Technology project took a healthier approach by looking into an entirely vegan diet for future space voyagers. They developed more than 100 vegan recipes for a six to eight person Mars crew, featuring fresh fruits and vegetables possibly grown in hydroponic systems. Veganism wasn’t so much a ideological choice for the NASA team as a practical one: it would be difficult to store easily perishable dairy and meat products during the lengthy trip to Mars.
All the way back in 2011, NASA was pointing to kitchen-style gardens as a solution for astronauts, realizing pre-packaged food alone probably wouldn’t cut it for deep space missions. Speaking at an American Chemical Society gathering, scientist Maya Cooper of NASA’s Space Food System Laboratory said chefs and horticultural experts could help devise a plan for producing the over 7,000 pounds of food required for the five year journey to Mars. Experts identified 10 likely candidates for a spaceship kitchen garden: cabbage, spinach, herbs, carrots, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, spring onions, radishes and lettuce – of course we’re now growing that last plant already on ISS. In just over five years, scientists have come a long way in developing space farming, and we’re excited to see what innovations crop up in the upcoming years as humanity prepares to go to Mars.