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Growing a Martian Menu: Inside The Race To Feed Missions To Mars

As humans explore the possibilities of colonising ‘the red planet’, one question is crucial: how are we going to eat there?

Digital Collage Artist: Carmila Duwe

When the ancient Greeks looked upwards and gazed upon Mars—fiery and red like the colour of blood—they decided to name it after their god of war, Ares. They named its two small moons Phobos meaning “fear”, and Deimos meaning “terror and dread”, both after the twin mythological characters who accompanied their father Ares into battle.

Mars is looked at through a more optimistic lens today. The sentiment remains the same—it is a dangerous and unforgiving planet—but with it comes the possibility of scientific advancement and an exciting new chapter in human history.

Scientists have already uncovered vast amounts of knowledge on the Red Planet. In March, analysis of Martian rocks discovered by NASA’s Perseverance rover suggested that they had been shaped by wind and water, and a research article in Science used computer simulations to suggest an ‘ocean worth’ of water may be lurking in minerals under the planet’s crust. Elsewhere, they’ve already begun to build the means of getting us there. Elon Musk said this past December he remains “highly confident” his company SpaceX will land humans on Mars by 2026, adding that he plans to send a crew-less ship in as soon as two years’ time.

This brings us to the next challenge: How are we going to eat there?

If you’ve seen The Martian, you’ll know growing plants and crops on Mars is no easy feat. And yet, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s 2011 novel, featuring Matt Damon, still makes the whole pursuit seem far simpler than in reality.

Dr. Shannon Rupert (PhD) is the director of the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), the largest and longest-running Mars surface simulation facility in the world and one of two simulated Mars analog habitats operated by the Mars Society. With the same geologic patterns and processes that robotic missions have discovered on Mars, MDRS has been the hub for her team’s research into Martian crop production. “What we have learned is that it is harder than you think it will be on all levels”, Dr Rupert says. “We have refined our ability to grow large amounts of commercial crops here on Earth, but haven't even tried to link the process of traditional small scale farming to agriculture on Mars.”

One of the main obstacles currently facing scientists developing Martian farming is the lack of a key ingredient we have in abundance here on Earth: soil. Plants will have the same needs as they do back at home, but there is no soil and insufficient nitrogen on Mars, and crucially, no way of hauling it up there. Instead, Mars is covered in a loose layer of rock, sand and dust called relogith, and while relogith does contain many nutrients plants need, they don’t necessarily exist in the form that plants can absorb. Relogith is also high in salts like the toxin perchlorate.

The answer lies in finding ways to remove the harmful components from the relogith and adding organic material, as well as finding other ways of altering the conditions to allow plant growth.

Dr. Laura Fackrell of the University of Georgia’s Geochem Laboratory, whose research focuses on treatments for soil, explains: “We will use various methods of extracting specific elements to create nutrient solutions for hydroponic systems, or treatments for soil to adapt it for growing.” Until then, the potatoes Matt Damon enjoys with ketchup in The Martian are sadly more likely to cause serious sickness or death.

Generally, research on growing plants in space is now pretty extensive—the Advanced Plant Habitat house onboard the International Space Station yielded some great results with its first growth test of crops, and scientists have a good idea of how plants respond to microgravity environments. Agricultural research on Earth has also taught scientists much on salt and water scarcity issues when it comes to farming. What is currently lacking from a Martian agriculture perspective is peer-reviewed research, a trusted form of scientific communication that will credit (or discredit) findings and advance our universal knowledge.

Scot Bryson, founder of Orbital Farm, a Circular Project Development company currently developing 200 large-scale closed-loop farms across the world, agrees that a more collaborative approach to space innovation is needed in order to achieve the level of progress many countries wish to see. “The EU, NASA, Canada, Japan, China, Russia and many more have made huge strides in life support systems [and] in food production”, he says. “There is a lack of coordinated efforts between space agencies, commercial companies, universities, and the result of this is a severe gap in capabilities which could benefit everyone on earth today and tomorrow.”

Alongside Orbital Farm’s closed-loop farm development, the company is behind the Universal Food Project, an effort to begin a collaboration between countries to contribute towards space through life support systems, food production, water, and energy. This is crucial work, particularly because the International Space Station—which was created to bring together cold war nations for the greater good of humanity—is potentially coming to an end in three years’ time.

Elsewhere, Orbital Farm is developing its SpacePort America project in New Mexico which integrates energy and food production to support the most food insecure state in the USA while supplying fresh food to the community.

“It will serve as an analog for space technologies and how they are directly applied to earth challenges”, Bryson explains, as well as furthering the efforts for developing habitats on Mars by demonstrating systems that support large numbers of humans in space.

Building more analogs here on Earth and trialing them before we take them to the red planet is a process Bryson is keen to push for.

“Until we have operated large facilities for three to six years without breaking down or requiring major amounts of maintenance, or human labour, we're going to be bringing packaged food for most of the nutritional needs. The systems that we will use in the short term to provide food for four to six astronauts, will not be the same systems that we use to feed 100, 1000, or 10,000+ people. For a crew of 100 to Mars, this would take two entire starships of food and packaging for a three-year return mission.”

Say that all the barriers are eventually overcome and Musk’s dream of a city on Mars is realized, what will be on the table for dinner? Sadly, nothing worth writing home about—at least to begin with. If your tastebuds are accustomed to the rich and diverse cuisines we are afforded here on Earth, prepare to get back to a minimal roster when you make it to our colony on Mars. Think lettuce, tomatoes, snap peas, and other nutritional staples such as wheat, soybean, and—yes!—potatoes.

There’s a general consensus that meat is unlikely to be making an appearance on a Martian menu, although Orbital Farm’s Scot Bryson thinks that fish could have a place in our future space settlements. Ultimately, the Martian diet is likely to be a balance of agricultural produce and long-life packaged foods.

“People talk of the future eating habits of Martians in one of two ways: either we are going to eat like we do on Earth minus the animal component or we are going to take pills and protein bars”, Dr. Rupert says. “The truth is so centred in the middle of this spectrum that no one seems willing to embrace it.”

Not everyone is optimistic that colonising Mars is a good idea, however. Shannon Stirone, a science journalist who writes for the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Atlantic, is passionate about why setting up a large-scale human camp is something to be avoided.

“I feel that the word colonising and the notion of it are all wrong. We have to learn from colonisers on Earth to see that it's immoral and is never the strategy”, Stirone says. “The worst that could happen is that people there starve or eat each other, which believe it or not, in that instance is seen as ethical.”

“Scientific exploration of Mars is a worthwhile pursuit and eventually one day to see a human there, likely a geologist, will be thrilling. But our sci-fi notion of settling on Mars just isn't going to happen. It's deadly.”

Could it be that the ancient Greek impression of a destructive, brutal and bloodied planet named Ares will, in the end, be the truest representation of Mars? Perhaps, our future relationship with the planet is something we are not yet able to fully comprehend. Whatever the outcome, our efforts in Martian astrobotany can only be a step forward for our future.

“All visionary pursuits are worthwhile. It is up to those who pursue it to do it in a way that benefits humankind”, says Dr Rupert. “I personally want to see Mars through human eyes, even though they won't be my eyes. But, I'm also rather happy that I won't be around to see what happens after those first amazing moments of humans as a spacefaring people.”


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