Scientists take a step closer to growing food on Mars

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Portions of the Martian surface shot by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show many channels from 1 meter to 10 meters wide on a scarp in the Hellas impact basin, in this photograph taken January 14, 2011 and released by NASA March 9, 2011. Scientists have found the first evidence that briny water may flow on the surface of Mars during the planet's summer months, a paper published on Monday showed. Researchers found telltale fingerprints of salts that form only in the presence of water in narrow channels cut into cliff walls throughout the planet's equatorial region. Reuters/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/Handout

With the announcement of NASA’s Mars mission, scientists are now hoping to make scientific breakthroughs to support life on the red planet. Engineers and researchers are expected to deal with the human challenges associated with long-duration space flights such as the responses of the brain to zero gravity. However, the most compelling of all challenges is the possibility of growing food on Mars, as well as in microgravity transit conditions.

NASA, on Oct 7, announced its competition for citizens to draft the best ideas that examine the possibility of using resources on Mars to grow food. The space agency promised a pool of US$15,000 (approx. AU$21,000) in prize money to the three best entries submitted before Dec 3.

Now, Bruce Bugbee, director of the Plants, Soils & Climate Department at Utah State University, may be assisting NASA in developing a long-term solution to the food problem on Mars, according to CNET. Lauded earlier in 2015 for growing lettuce in zero gravity, Bugbee and his team of researchers have been working predominantly on ground-based plant-growing chambers.

“I have a long-term relationship with NASA to help them develop biological life support systems for space,” Bugbee said in an interview.  “And that includes Mars, it includes living on the space station, it might include living on the Moon; any place that the goal is to be as independent of Earth as possible.”

The plants are grown hydroponically in terrestrial growth chambers – which are refrigerator-like closed systems, reports CNET. Carbon dioxide, temperature and humidity levels have to be tightly controlled in the environment with no natural light, to simulate growing conditions present on the International Space Station (ISS). Microgravity, in fact, happens to be a small concern.  

“As far as we know, from many years of studying this, the lack of gravity doesn't hurt plants at all. In fact, we think they might even grow better because there's no gravity pulling them down,” shared Bugbee.

In August 2014, Dutch researchers had grown 14 plant species on stimulants of Mars and moon soil. The possibility of using Mars regolith, although lacking in water and nitrogen, to cultivate crops had been successfully examined in the research.

With scientists working round-the-clock to devise innovative methods to solve the food problem on the red planet, NASA’s Mars mission in 2030 does not seem unlikely.

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