Astrogarden Rover: How Can We Design a Garden for Mars?
With incredible advances in space exploration, the idea of harvesting crops and planting gardens in space is leaving the realm of science fiction and becoming a reality. Research in astrobiology, a.k.a. “space biology,” has shown us that certain seeds can be grown in soils similar to those found on Mars (which exist in many locations across the Earth) and even in ground-up meteorites. Plants need liquid water, oxygen, sunlight, nutrients and fertilizers, and comfortable temperatures, and although many of these are not currently found on Mars, this does not mean plants cannot grow there. The re-design of simple Earth objects such as gardening tools and greenhouses, and the development of specialized systems to plant the seeds and nurture the growing plants, could allow us to grow gardens on Mars.
The environmental conditions on Mars are extreme by Earth standards, but due to giant leaps in our knowledge of the red planet over the last few decades, we can accurately design a habitat that could thrive on Mars and withstand the harsh conditions. Mars is a red and dusty world with a non-breathable thin, low pressure carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere, extremely strong radiation from the Sun and very cold temperatures (an average of -63 °C!). It has 38 percent of the gravity that we have on the Earth and is ravaged by global dust storms including dust devils that tower above the largest tornadoes on the Earth.
This is not a world you imagine would be able to support most of the plant and animal life we can see on the Earth, let alone a garden. But if we are ever going to stay on Mars for extended periods, or permanently move there, we need to figure out how to sustain ourselves indefinitely. Not only is food essential for us to live, but the act of eating, cooking and growing plants is absolutely crucial to the psychology of space explorers who are far from home. Even with the low gravity on Mars, cooking and cultivation during daily life on Mars is possible, and is being simulated right now at Hi-SEAS in Hawaii. With food and plants being so important to humans for their mental and physical survival, we need to explore in detail how to grow them on Mars.
We've designed an exhibit—including the first-ever astrogardening rover—to educate both children and adults about the science behind future human habitation on Mars. Although it is hard to imagine, all the necessary materials to support life can be found in some form on Mars, we just need to design the tools and technologies to make use of it. Such thoughts have led to the design of all the elements of our exhibit. Examples include the extraction of liquid water. All water on Mars is currently frozen beneath the surface, but what if we could mine it and melt it for use in the garden? Mars is cold but plants need warmer temperatures, so how could we insulate the ground and design a heating system to keep the ecosystem warm? Plants such as asparagus, potatoes and marigolds have already been shown to grow in mars-like soils, plus seeds of radish, alfalfa, and mung bean have been shown to sprout in the carbon dioxide atmosphere of Mars. The necessary gases to provide inflation of the habitat and to create a plant-breathable environment can also be extracted from the Martian atmosphere. Carbon taken from atmospheric carbon dioxide could be used in photosynthesis by the plants, producing oxygen, which in turn would allow us to breathe without the need for space suits.
Gardening on Mars would provide a long-term food source for future human colonies and could provide over half their required calorie intake through the growth of tomatoes, potatoes and other fruit and vegetables. Gardens would not just provide food: They will also help to recycle nutrients, provide drinking water and create oxygen for us to breathe. They could even provide building materials such as wood and bamboo.
Although we don’t have exact dates for when we expect to pack our bags and move to Mars, preparation is the key if we want to realize our dreams of living on another planet.
Please help us create our exhibit on Kickstarter.
Images courtesy of Vanessa Harden.