article image

How YOU can help grow a Mars garden

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
May 13, 2013, 7:00 UTC

Sen—With NASA looking forward to manned missions to Mars within a couple of decades, thoughts are turning to how astronauts there might sustain themselves.

Ferrying food supplies from Earth will be enormously expensive and if colonies are developed then their residents will surely need to become as self-sufficient as possible.

Some scientists are already devoting research into what plants might be cultivated on the Red Planet. It turns out that despite the thin and unbreathable atmosphere and lack of a protective shield against radiation, the soil itself is fit for crops.

One UK scientist who is investigating the potential for gardening on Mars is Dr Louisa Preston, of the UK’s Open University. After gaining her degree in geology, Louisa switched to astrobiology. Now she has joined forces with Canadian artist Vanessa Harden to design a Martian garden.

They envisage sending robots to Mars to set up space greenhouses where seed pills containing seeds, clay and nutrients could be scattered and then nurtured even before the first human residents arrive. And they are looking to Kickstarter on the Internet to raise funding to begin building their concept here on Earth.

Louisa told Sen: “It costs something like $80,000 just to deliver four litres of water to the Moon, let alone Mars. It is ridiculously expensive to ship things to other planets. And the journey takes so long that fresh fruit and vegetables just wouldn’t survive.

“So a Mars settlement would need to be self-sufficient. Fortunately, a number of plants should grow well in Martian soil, such as potatoes, tomatoes, asparagus and some seeds and grains. It has been shown that you can even grow some flowers like marigolds in ground-up meteorites.”

She added: “You can’t just plant seeds in Martian soil because of the lack of a decent atmosphere and the problem of radiation from space. You would also need to garden in self-contained units to avoid contaminating Mars - planetary protection is very important.”

Louisa sees geodesic domes as a way to go to building greenhouses for Mars, with plastic covers to protect from UV radiation but let light in. She now is planning with Vanessa to build prototypes which can be installed in museums and art galleries for people to visit.

Mars seed pilsAn example of the seed pills that could be used to produce crops for astronauts. Credit: Louisa Preston and Vanessa Harden

As well as being a peaceful and tranquil area, there will be plants growing in red dirt that Louisa intends will simulate Martian soil as closely as possible. Interactive exhibits will entertain as well as educate youngsters. And the highlight will be to meet the robotic gardener.

Louisa told us: “We just want to open everyone’s minds to the idea of gardening on another planet. We also want them to think how, if Earth’s population continues to grow and if we keep playing around with the atmosphere, then we might have to think about living somewhere else.”

Louisa and Vanesse need to win pledges totalling £10,000 to get their Kickstarter project to the next stage. Last night they had raised more than a tenth of this with 17 days left to find the balance.

Backing the project can bring you rewards such as a postcard from Mars, your own seed pills, a stylish T-shirt and more. Plus the warm glow of supporting a really worthy project that will also help research into how humans might feed themselves on another world. You can read more about the AstroGardening venture on Kickstarter.