Tech UPTechnologyCould we farm on Mars?

Could we farm on Mars?

 

For any future human colony on Mars or any other body in the solar system to last over time, it must be self- sufficient in all aspects. The distances are too great and the costs too high to depend entirely on Earth for things as basic as the air we breathe or the water and food we eat .

We have recently talked about the amount of water present on the Moon and whether it is enough to supply a human colony on our satellite , as well as the possibility of growing food on lunar soil . Both options seem feasible, although they present considerable challenges. We also know that Mars contains much more water than the Moon , in the form of ice in both polar ice caps on the one hand and below the surface in highly saline lakes and mud puddles on the other. So the next question would be , can we grow food on Mars?

After all, what makes a floor habitable ? This of course depends on what type of living being is trying to inhabit it, although for the vast majority of plants and specifically for those that we may be interested in cultivating, it is enough that it has the correct amount of water (that is, that it is not too dry, but not too wet either) and that it has the necessary nutrients . The three most basic would be carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen . These elements will be the fundamental blocks that form the vast majority of biomolecules that make up the plant. In addition to being obtained from the ground, they can also be obtained from water or the air .

After these we would have the three main macronutrients, nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus . These are usually present in the soil and in fertilizers . They are essential elements for the proper functioning of the plant and, for example, they play a key role in photosynthesis . Other minor macronutrients would be calcium, magnesium or sulfur , which are also necessary, but to a lesser extent. These can be found in healthy soils, along with micronutrients such as iron, zinc or chlorine . The presence of these elements in each soil will depend on its mineral composition, but also on the presence (present or past) of other living beings , which will replenish the elements through biological processes (such as excretion) or after decomposition.

In Martian soil we will not be able to depend on the presence of other living beings to provide us with the necessary nutrients, so these must be present from the beginning or added later. However, a floor may not be suitable not only because it lacks some substance, but also because it has an excess. This happens with the Martian soil, which is full of perchlorates . These are nothing more than compounds that contain the ClO 4 group, formed by four oxygen atoms surrounding a chlorine atom. Perchlorates, which barely account for between 0.5% and 1% of the Martian soil , would be enough to make it completely uncultivable .

However, it is relatively easy to get rid of them (or lower their concentration enough) by passing the soil through water . This is exactly what has been done to prepare the dozens of experiments carried out with chemical imitations of the Martian soil here on Earth, which have shown without a doubt that, once free of perchlorates, the Martian soil is capable of carrying out different plant species . However, these experiments have shown that in general the Martian soil needs to be supplemented with certain nutrients to ensure that cultivated plants grow correctly and without nutritional deficits.

The same thing had to be done by astronaut Mark Watney from the novel (and corresponding film) “The Martian”, by Andy Weir. He however did not fertilize his makeshift potato crop with artificial fertilizer, but with his own feces . In a real mission, it would be much more profitable to transport the powdered fertilizer from Earth . And while he, too, used improvised methods to generate enough water to irrigate his crop, a mission with the goal of growing food outlined from the start could be done more safely and efficiently, perhaps by directly accessing the planet’s water reservoirs, or through chemical reactions.

Of course, growing on Mars will have other considerations to take into account beyond the quality of its soils. On the one hand, its surface is too cold (average temperatures well below 0ºC) to grow outdoors, so this entire odyssey must be carried out in greenhouses adapted for it. In addition, the Martian atmosphere is very thin and contains 96% carbon dioxide , with hardly any oxygen. On the other hand, the lower gravity of Mars could cause the water and nutrients in the soil to filter more slowly than on Earth , reducing the amount of these needed and making the whole process somewhat more efficient than on our planet.

If all this process ends up being carried out successfully, perhaps in the future we will be able to have large areas dedicated to cultivation, so that it is the plants themselves that provide nutrients to the soil for future generations. Perhaps even, given enough time and some genetic engineering , we could have plants capable of growing on their own on Martian soil , without the need for greenhouses, filtration, or fertilizers. For that, however, there is still a long way to go.

Referencias:

A.L. Paul et al, 2022, Plants grown in Apollo lunar regolith present stress-associated transcriptomes that inform prospects for lunar exploration. Communications Biology, DOI: 10.1038/s42003-022-03334-8

R. Molar Candanosa, 2017, Growing Green on the Red Planet, American Chemical Society, ChemMatters

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