Science and Exploration

Learning How To Grow Plants on Mars

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
September 28, 2016
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Learning How To Grow Plants on Mars
Growing Plants

Of the many challenges involved in sending humans on the journey to Mars, figuring out how to pack enough food for such a lengthy trip looms large.
Of course, astronauts will need food on their way to and from Mars, and also during their time on the Red Planet as part of the almost two-and-a-half-year trip. Although prepackaged food will be provided, stowing space-saving seeds to grow one’s own food provides extra nutrition and even increases morale by sprouting a glimpse of home while millions of miles away from Earth.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is partnering with the Florida Tech Buzz Aldrin Space Institute in Melbourne, Florida, to collaborate on research studying the performance of crop species grown in a simulated “Martian garden” — a proving ground for a potential future farm on the Red Planet.

“We are using advances in science to learn about increasing plant production to supplement astronauts’ diets,” said Trent Smith, Veggie Project Manager at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Veggie is a plant-growth unit enabling space gardening and space plant biology experiments on the International Space Station.

“Soil, by definition, contains organics; it has held plant life, insects, worms. Mars doesn’t really have soil,” said Ralph Fritsche, the senior project manager for food production at Kennedy Space Center.

Instead, the Red Planet is covered with regolith: crushed volcanic rock containing nothing organic. But it does contain some toxic chemicals, adding to the complexity of the challenge at hand.

The 100 pounds of Martian soil simulant being used at Florida Tech comes from Hawaii and was chosen based on spectral data from Mars orbiters. It will be a common simulant used for testing the performance of the hardware systems used to grow plants. The Florida Tech team will experiment with which and how much nutrients should be added to the simulant for optimal plant growth of various crops

During a 3.5-week pilot study, Drew Palmer, a professor of biochemistry and chemical ecology at Florida Tech, grew three lettuce plants: one in simulant, one in simulant with added nutrients, and one in potting soil. The study began with 30 seeds in the simulant-only tubes, and ended with only half as many; although they tasted the same as the others, their roots were not as strong as the potting soil plants.

This preliminary research also found that germination rates were two to three days slower than in control groups, and therefore it’s important to gain an understanding of how the timelines involved in Martian farming differ from growth times on Earth.

According to Fritsche, this study will document and publish scientific data on growing plants in a widely available Martian simulant, providing a control for future studies.

Some of the plants they may try to grow during the nine-month test include radishes, Swiss chard, kale, Chinese cabbage, snow peas, dwarf peppers and tomatoes — all nutritious foods and, more importantly, all tested and selected menu items for astronauts.

NASA and Florida Tech formally signed the agreement in June 2016 and testing officially began in mid-September. A preliminary report on the test results is expected in mid-January 2017, with the final report planned for March 2017.

The teams are working together to define the test strategies and the data to be gathered, and will collaborate again to analyze the data and test results. NASA scientists are providing expertise on the selection of Martian simulant being used, as well as the initial setup and start of the test. They’ll also help assess the health of the growing plants in concert with the Florida Tech faculty. Florida Tech is providing the plant seeds, Martian regolith simulant, growth volume, equipment, and most importantly plant care and data collection by students and professors. The Florida Tech team also will write the post-test report.

Discoveries made in these Earth-based “Martian gardens” will pave the way for future studies and technology development in terms of reliable, efficient food production a long way from the home planet, Fritsche said.

“We’re right at the cutting edge of this research.”

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.