Growing greens on the Red Planet

Growing greens on the Red Planet
The Southampton #LettuceOnMars experiment
The Southampton #LettuceOnMars experiment
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The Southampton #LettuceOnMars experiment
The Southampton #LettuceOnMars experiment
The #LettuceOnMars team
The #LettuceOnMars team
Block diagram of the Martian lettuce experiment
Block diagram of the Martian lettuce experiment
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When the first living visitor from Earth lands on Mars we might well expect it to be a man or a woman, but if students from the University of Southampton Spaceflight Society have their way, it could be one small step for a lettuce. That may seem more than a bit mad, but its part of an experiment to see if crops can grow in the Martian environment as a prelude to colonization.

If Mars is ever going to be colonized, the pioneers are going to have to learn to live off the land. Shipping food, water, air, spare parts, and the other necessities of life would be insanely expensive, and a completely self-contained habitat, even if feasible, misses the point of colonization and might as well be built in the Gobi Desert or Antarctica. A truly success colony will need, for example, to use the Martian air and the Martian sunlight to grow crops.

Developed by a team of under and postgraduate students as part of an international competition sponsored by the Mars One group, the Southampton #LettuceOnMars experiment consists of a small greenhouse that will be able to grow lettuces using the atmosphere and sunlight on Mars. The goal is to demonstrate that it is feasible to grow crops on Mars with an open-ended technology that uses Martian resources rather than the closed systems used in gardening experiments on the International Space Station or relying on materials sent from Earth.

The #LettuceOnMars team
The #LettuceOnMars team

The greenhouse consists of an aircraft-grade aluminum case with a polycarbonate dome, which is curved to prevent to accumulation of dust in the event of a storm, blocks the hard UV radiation from the Sun, and acts as a bioshield to separate the growing area from the outside world. In addition, the experiment also includes pumps for pressurizing the extremely thin Martian atmosphere; filters to keep out dust; a heater; supplies of water, nutrients, and pH balancing chemicals; and a bank of UV lamps.

The latter is particularly important because the sunlight on Mars is only half as bright as it is on Earth. On the best days, it only reaches the level of an overcast winter's day, so LEDs designed to shed a narrow spectrum of light to promote growth will be used as a supplement.

So why choose the common lettuce? According to the Southampton team, it is because lettuce is often used in growing experiments, has already flown in space several times, is edible, grows quickly from hardy seed, and is compact.

Block diagram of the Martian lettuce experiment
Block diagram of the Martian lettuce experiment

At the beginning of the mission, the experiment, if selected, will be inactive and the lettuce seeds frozen into a state of dormancy for the seven-month voyage to the Red Planet on the Mars One unmanned lander in 2018. The landing area has yet to be determined, but Mars One says it will be in a band covering the ancient Martian seabeds that now form the northern plains of Mars between 40⁰ and 50⁰ latitude. This is regarded as an area for a future colony because the air pressure is slightly higher than in the uplands.

On the surface, the greenhouse will be heated to 21⁰ to 24⁰ C (70⁰ to 75⁰ F), then pressurized using the Martian atmosphere combined with nutrient-laced water vapor and oxygen generated by electrolysis. Once the seeds have germinated, the twilight-like Martian sunlight will be supplemented by the LEDs as cameras and sensors track the growth of the lettuces over a four week period. After the experiment is complete, the heating unit will be turned up to high to kill the lettuces and destroy and living organisms that might be in the greenhouse to avoid contaminating the Martian environment.

"To live on other planets we need to grow food there. No-one has ever actually done this and we intend to be the first," says project leader Suzanna Lucarotti. "This plan is both technically feasible and incredibly ambitious in its scope, for we will be bringing the first complex life to another planet. Growing plants on other planets is something that needs to be done, and will lead to a wealth of research and industrial opportunities that our plan aims to bring to the University of Southampton. We have tackled diverse sets of engineering challenges, including aeroponic systems, bio filters, low power gas pressurization systems and failsafe planetary protection systems and then integrated them all into one payload on a tight mass, power and cost budget."

The #LettuceOnMars project is one of ten university team finalists vying for a spot on the Mars One's unmanned lander, which is scheduled to touch down in 2018. According to the team, the Southampton experiment has passed the technical review and is now awaiting the results of a popular online vote, which ended on December 31.

Source: University of Southampton via Full-Time Whistle

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Racqia Dvorak
It's a waste, seeing how even the ever-present dust on Mars is toxic and ground to the point that filters can't catch all of it. Mars isn't colonizable.
Ernani Medenilla
Sounds new. Mars could be lettuce farm then if this experiment pulls but I doubt nothing can survive in the Martian soil, plants may survive but it will certainly die. Mars is not a life friendly place.
Larry Monske
The problem with mars soil is that its composition is 30% chlorine and basaltic salts all volcanic. 30% of the earth is unusable due to volcanic ash. It needs composted soil deposited on top and none of this material is on mars. All this soil from earth wont happen due to weight. Everything going into space is made of the lightest and strongest materials. A problem with low orbit grown vegatable , lettuce its had mutations in space and the danger is microbes mutating into something dangerous that humans cant handle and could be deadly.
I think that a real colonisation of Mars would need vegetables able to grow at least partly outside ... Pressurisation, filter, etc would require too many equipments and theuir permanent maintenance. It may be possible to develop plants able to resist freely on Mars in laboratory conditions on Earth by using classical plant developments technics. But maybe the conditions are too harsh especially the low temperature. A non pressurized greehouse would be a limited local investment on Mars. Growing "earth plants" seems to me a complete waste of ressource. On Earth, we usually grow plants adapted to the local conditions. Greenhouse and other improvements are mainly to increase production and diminish risks.
Come on guys, this is the first attempt at growing something on another planet with 'local' resources. Give them a few decades to refine the process. Personally I find this very exciting.
A lot of people have 'wasted' their time and come up with brilliant things.
As for the cost, well, I guess its actually a reasonably cheap research project - below the cost of a 30 sec ad at the Super Bowl, not to mention the cost of the FIFA World cup. But then, watching people tossing and running after a ball is far more fun than growing lettuce...
ps. I'm not anti-sport, on the contrary, but do believe the enormous resources devoted to them could be used more wisely...
I agree with huguesdb...some credits should be given to them...
The equipment that will be needed can be manufactured using 3D printing...and not necessarily transported from earth...maintenance would be fairly easier and cheaper with that.
The seeds can also be modified genetically to make better use of the martian environment. Well of course there will be the need for a lot of research...but i think its a good start.
@Larry Monske who said anything about growing in soil. The main picture looks very much like a hydroponic setup and the article states "using the Martian atmosphere combined with nutrient-laced water vapor and oxygen generated by electrolysis".
I think it is a great experiment and, as others have said, you have to start somewhere. I hope they are successful in being chosen. What an honour it would be to have been part of a team that grew the first thing on Mars!
I'm of two minds on the usefulness of this as a first test. Growing local food is essential to colonization, however growing complex organisms like lettuce is not. Micro-crops like spirulina and other algae strains would be more efficient at resource use. There is the adaptability issue with micro-crops. Astronauts used to eating greens and vegetables rather than micro crops would have psychological problems making the change, so jumping straight to the kind of food they would prefer might be good.
If this works I'd like to see an aquaculture system tested. A good aquaculture system can process several kinds of waste as well as producing protein and veggies. Use the dung to grow algae and then feed it to tilapia whose waste feeds the hydroponics system which then produces "clean" water for the fish. Tilapia will also eat peelings and other scraps so could dispose of the veggie waste as well.
Stephen N Russell
See movie Silent Running, 1972 set in 2017 with biodomes in Space. Good role model for this project
Umberto Amante
Why worry about an "invasive species" contaminating Mars when we are going to send the most invasive species (humans) ever to Mars? Why not send something that will consume Martian air and soil and produce in turn something for a more complex lifeform to eat and in turn so forth and so on? How about plants that can survive?