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A white paper introducing leading and innovative technologies that'll take humankind to new horizons.
Charles Shockley | Background Report
Space exploration has come a long way since the Cold War and the Space Race, and man is finally preparing to colonize Mars. The famous quote by Neil Armstrong, “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” is about to become revolutionized. Elon Musk and scientist alike are looking to other celestial bodies to expand the footprint of mankind. While Earth is currently our only oasis in the solar system, in the future, Venus and Mars might share similar characteristics due to technological breakthroughs through a process known as terraforming. This idea sounds like a sci-fi movie but can become a reality and may happen sooner rather than later and requires a significant understanding of how to cultivate the land.
Farming was the pinnacle moment in human history that allowed mankind to domesticate and become more advanced technologically than ever before. It allowed civilizations to flourish and populations to grow dramatically. Basic life sustainability relies on agriculture and access to food and water; and in the state Mars is in, vegetation is not able to grow to provide for life. But how does one prepare for colonizing Mars? More specifically, how will the astronauts establish subsistence farming without proper atmospheric and soil conditions as seen on Earth? This paper explores the research and technologies that are helping to prepare scientists and astronauts on how to cultivate Mars.
Mars, as we know it, is not readily life-sustaining. To start, according to NASA, Mars’ average temperature is around -81 degrees Fahrenheit. With water freezing at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, precautions would need to be made to make sure any water a greenhouse creates or the colonizing astronauts bring for crop farming does not freeze, especially overnight where there is a lack of sun to warm the planet. Looking at Mars’ atmospheric composition, microorganism, through photosynthesis, would seem to love Mars with carbon dioxide making up 96% of the atmosphere while argon and nitrogen make up less than about 2% each and other chemicals filling in less than a fifth of a percent. Contrasting to Earth’s atmosphere which is made up of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 1% other, Mars lacks a proper atmosphere to sustain plant and animal life due to a much weaker gravity compared to Earth. As growing concerns of irreversible global warming trends and rising pollution continue, colonizing and, in the long run, terraforming Mars to make it habitable to plants, animals, and humans is a long and difficult challenge that many scientists are looking forward to.
Martian Soil Studies
In Andy Weir’s book “The Martian,” we see astronaut and botanist Mark Watney recreate his own greenhouse that provides potatoes for him while he waits stranded on Mars. But what does one do when Earth’s soil and fertilizer is not readily available or runs out? That’s what Sodexo Executive Chef at Whitworth University, Timothy Grayson, set out to do. Nicknamed “The Martian Salad Project,” Grayson used volcanic soil from Hawaii that imitates regolith on Mars to grow crops. In a recent study, plants like tomatoes, kale, and some herbs grew successfully while others like sweet peas did not. The crops that did grow, grew from USDA organic-certified seeds. Sodexo plans to test more crops in the future such as potatoes as they’ll need different variables. Interestingly, in another study according to Mars One, scientists of Wageningen University and Research found that despite high levels of heavy metals in simulants, eight crops grown in the universities greenhouses showed no dangerous levels of the metals while some crops even showed less concentrations than the plants in the potting soil.
NASA, with the help of Florida Tech Buzz Aldrin Space Institute, also set out similar studies using the same Hawaiian soil. Anna Heiney says that the study, “ grew lettuce plants in three conditions: one in simulant, one in simulant with added nutrients, and one in potting soil. ” In the simulant only tubes, researchers Drew Palmer and Brooke Wheeler found that out of the thirty seeds planted, only half survived. These plants also lacked stronger roots like the ones seen in the lettuce crops that grew in the potting soil along with a two to three-day slower growth rate. As this nine-month study progresses into later this year and through early 2017, scientist plan to test other crops such as radishes, dwarf peppers, Swiss chard, and more nutritious foods that are within the astronauts’ proper diet.
These studies do not account for the atmospheric characteristics of Mars but provides scientist valuable information as to whether Mars’ regolith is capable of growing enough crops for sustainability. Being able to use Mars’ regolith would allow more storage on the spacecraft as there would be no need to store soil which would in turn allow for more seeds, fertilizer, and other products to be stored. This would also allow the astronauts to use what they have to grow the vegetables and plants and not have to worry about finding alternative solutions to yield the same results such as a more advanced greenhouse that requires Earth’s soil. While astronauts are not planned to set foot on the planet for some time, NASA hopes by 2030 while more conservative predicts suggest 2050 or later, research of this degree will help better prepare NASA and others to determine what is vital for the trip and what Mars has to offer.
NASA is already testing crop growth with its Vegetable Production System, also referred to as Veggie, on the International Space Station to study germination and regrowth potential. The Kennedy Space Center and the ISS conducts these experiments in a similar way simultaneously to test the differences of deep-space farming. Linda Herridge, a writer for the Kennedy Space Center News, describes testing the plants as, “ The remaining plant material, plant pillows, microbial sampling swabs and water samples will be stored at minus 80 degrees Celsius for analysis. All of the samples will be compared with plants and plant pillows from the International Space Station, which will be preserved in the same way and returned to Earth on a future Commercial Resupply Services mission.”
Figure 1 Vegetable Production System Prototype used on the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi)In a video series by NASA Johnson, Dr. Gioia Massa, Veggie Hardware Validation Test Science Team Lead, explains the design of the Veggie system. The hardware and technology is relatively simple with LED light emitting diodes that simulate the sun, a reservoir for water, plant pillows that can be used for soil and fertilizer for the plants, and finally an extendable bellows that acts as a greenhouse. Veggie is a low-energy source that varies from previous farming capsules sent to space by allowing the crew to interact with it as it’s transparent and not a closed system along with using a wicking system for water meaning no pumping or irrigation is needed. This system allows for lighting and nutrient delivery but lacks hardware that can provide carbon dioxide and temperature control. This can present a problem when creating a larger scale farm but applying the same technologies from the International Space Station that provide temperature and carbon dioxide control can be replicated in a closed greenhouse on Mars.
Greenhouses designed for Mars
To combat Mars’ incredibly carbon dioxide rich atmosphere and cold weather, building inflatable greenhouses to grow gardens and farms would be essential. According to the authors of Engineering concepts for Inflatable Mars surface greenhouses, “greenhouses cannot only be used for the production of edible biomass but also as air and water regeneration processors.” This article explains the structure and materials needed for the greenhouse along with which lighting works best and how the crops will be heated on the cold planet.
Inflatable greenhouses on Mars would be constructed out of Kevlar webbing with an air-inflated, impermeable translucent bladder. To protect against radiation, a dome would enclose the bladder. The authors suggest that if natural lighting is intended for use, a highly translucent dome would be necessary; and in contrast for artificial lighting, an opaque multi-layer insulator would need to be installed to retain heat which would lower heating costs throughout the life of the greenhouse which could be used to pay for electrical costs. Figure 2 is a visual adaptation of the design. The domes would consist of semi-cylindrical horizontal structures with spherical edges to protect the greenhouses with different internal pressures than external pressures from buckling.
Figure 2 Layout of horizontal greenhouse prototype. (Credit: I. Hublitz, D.L. Henninger, B.G. Drake, P. Eckart) Determining the lighting source is rather complex as both artificial and natural lighting has their advantages and drawbacks. For natural lighting, “transparent materials can save considerable mass, power and heat rejection resources that would be otherwise required for artificial lighting.” However, natural lighting on Mars lacks photo-synthetically active radiation levels that can be produced by artificial lighting and even though artificial lighting produces heat, some of that heat may be retained through overnight hours to keep temperatures in the greenhouse or other parts of the colony from fluctuating frequently.
This progresses into Hublitz next topic as a thermal control system would need to be implemented. In the case of natural lighting, heat gain is not as prevalent, to say the least, due to the use of transparent materials needed. With more loss as opposed to gain, artificial lighting in an opaque greenhouse would seem to be a better opportunity. However, the authors advise against this as too much heat in the greenhouse would generate waste and although nighttime hours would experience close to nil heat gain/loss, it is not an efficient method for a greenhouse. Therefore, Hublitz suggests a hybrid lighting system that would require a transparent greenhouse. During solar heat gain hours, roughly between 6 to 18 hours’ local time, the greenhouse would rely on the sun for heat. During Martian night hours, the greenhouse would be covered by multi-layer insulation to retain heat and using artificial lighting of a lower intensity. Figure 3 shows these concepts graphically.
Figure 3 Top row: Shows solar heat gain/loss for natural lighting with transparent greenhouse (left) and heat gain/loss for artificial lighting with opaque greenhouse (right). Bottom row: Shows heat gain/loss with hybrid system. (Credit: I. Hublitz, D.L. Henninger, B.G. Drake, P. Eckart)Conclusion
In September 2016, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, presented his plan on creating an interplanetary transport system that would deliver people not only from Earth to Mars, but eventually to other, more distant, and more complex celestial bodies such as Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Titan. As a new global age of technology is upon us, expanding humankind to other parts of the universe is a magnificent achievement that Elon Musk, NASA and scientist alike are hoping to conquer sooner rather than later, and the best place to start is Mars. While it will take a lot of research and development to make Mars habitable to humans and to sustain life like Earth, historical data shows that the planet was once capable of doing such that. With studies of finding the optimal way to grow crops on Mars, whether through using Mars’ regolith and classic farming techniques as seen on Earth, or needing to use greenhouse technology, the dream of colonizing other planets may soon become a reality.
This research will pave the way for astronauts to colonize Mars and to create a livable planet and it does not stop here. NASA plans to launch a miniature greenhouse to Mars in 2021 to get a better understanding of how plants react to Mars’ atmosphere. It is unknown what the results will yield but this will help scientists determine what technologies are needed to proceed with the journey to Mars. This concept comes at a great expense but the reward for mankind will be greater than Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. And to reap the reward, scientists need to find ways for plants to grow in Martian soil and climate, which has yet to be studied, and to learn how to build a structurally sound greenhouse that can retain heat, preserve water and oxygen, but also does not require excessive energy that can be used for other Martian related projects.
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Herridge, Linda "Flowering Zinnias set stage for deep-space food crop research." Space Daily, February 16, 2016. General OneFile (accessed October 24, 2016).
Dr. Gioia Massa interviewed by Kyle Herring, “Space Station Live: Space Garden Launching to Station,” NASA Johnson, YouTube video, 10:28, posted by “NASA Johnson,” March 18, 2014,
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Cioffi, Carla. “Learning About ‘Veggie’ at the NASA Social.” NASA. February 21, 2013. Accessed October 24, 2016.
Hublitz, I., D.L. Henninger, B.G. Drake, and P. Eckart. “Greenhouse architecture overview.” Science Direct. Accessed November 2, 2016.
Hublitz, I., D.L. Henninger, B.G. Drake, and P. Eckart. Heat gain/loss for natural, artificial, and hybrid greenhouse. Science Direct. Accessed November 2, 2016.
http://dx.doi.org.er.lib.k-state.edu/10.1016/j.asr.2004.06.002http://dx.doi.org.er.lib.k-state.edu/10.1016/j.asr.2004.06.002.h using Mars’ regolith and classic farming techniques as seen on Earth, or needing to use greenhouse technology, the dream of colonizing other planets may soon become a reality.
This research will pave the way for astronauts to colonize Mars and to create a livable planet and it does not stop here. NASA plans to launch a miniature greenhouse to Mars in 2021 to get a better understanding of how plants react to Mars’ atmosphere. It is unknown what the results will yield but this will help scientists determine what technologies are needed to proceed with the journey to Mars. This concept comes at a great