How to Plant a Garden on Mars — With a Robot

by Nancy Atkinson on May 14, 2013

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Sketch of the ‘AstroGardening’ robot within its Mars garden Credit: Vanessa Harden.

Sketch of the ‘AstroGardening’ robot within its Mars garden Credit: Vanessa Harden.

Editor’s note: This guest post is written by Louisa Preston, an Astrobiologist and Planetary Geologist. She is a TED Fellow, and Postdoctoral Research Associate at The Open University, UK.

In the last century humanity has taken gigantic leaps forward in the robotic exploration of the cosmos — not least in the search for habitable worlds and environments that could house life outside of the Earth. The next logical step is for humanity itself to leave the confines of our planet, and take on long-term human exploration of the Solar System. Mars in particular is a key target for future human planetary adventures even though on the face of it, it seems so hostile to human life. In fact Mars actually has the most clement environment of any planet in the Solar System outside of Earth and is known to have all of the resources necessary in some accessible form, to sustain life on the surface. So how might we survive on Mars? The crucial things for humans on Mars are the availability of oxygen, shelter, food and water, and not just endless consumables delivered to the planet from Earth. For humans to live long-term on Mars, they will need a self-sustaining habitat to be able to thrive in for generations.

In short, they’ll need a garden. And maybe a robot, too.

Any garden on Mars would need protection in the form of a greenhouse or geodesic dome that could keep the vegetables, fruits, grains and flowers sheltered from the extreme UV radiation that floods the Martian surface, whilst still allowing enough sunlight through to allow them to grow. This dome would also have to be strong enough to provide support and protection against potentially devastating Martian dust storms.

The crops would need to be kept warm, as outside the dome it will be on average a freezing -63 °C. Solar panels arranged outside the habitat and heating filaments underneath it could provide the desired warmth.

garden on mars

Liquid water is needed for irrigation of the plants and for future human consumption, but with water on Mars mainly frozen beneath the surface, we would need to mine the ice and melt it. The atmosphere on Mars is chiefly composed of CO2, which humans cannot use for any of our vital functions. However plants can! They can utilise this atmospheric CO2 to photosynthesise, which would actually create the oxygen we would need.

These are all important aspects of long-term human habitation of Mars that need to be tested and perfected before we arrive, but thankfully most of these can be investigated whilst safely here on the Earth in Mars analogue environments and specially designed spaces.

Our premise is that of a pioneer AstroGardening robot, designed and built by ourselves, to be sent to Mars to set up garden habitats in advance of the first human inhabitants. It will scatter ‘seed pills’ containing various seeds, clay and nutrients across the habitat and nurture the growing plants.

But before we actually go to Mars, we are working on an interactive ‘Mars Garden’ exhibit and AstroGardening Rover designed to educate and inspire.

Installation designer Vanessa Harden and I are building such a space; an interactive experience designed for museums and science centers to entertain and educate on the perils and benefits of gardening on Mars, the ways in which we need to design tools to do this, the plants that would best grow in Mars soil and the methods we might use to obtain liquid water.

Visitors to this Mars concept habitat will get to meet the AstroGardening robot himself and walk around a lush and tranquil Martian garden. They will also get to see the range of food stuffs that we can actually grow in the Martian soil such as asparagus, potatoes, sweet potatoes, radish, alfalfa, and mung bean.

Our aim for this exhibit is to communicate the science behind future human habitation of Mars, the effect we as humans can have on an environment, and the ethics and logistics of colonising other planets.

The exhibit has already been invited to tour around some of London’s most celebrated and beautiful venues such as observatories and planetariums, museums and art galleries, schools and universities, before heading across the ocean to the US and Canada.

But we need the public’s help to make this tour and exhibit a reality.

We have a Kickstarter page for this concept to raise the funds to begin building our vision. See our page and watch our video (below) to find out how you can help.

AstroGardening – Designing for Life on Mars from vanessa harden on Vimeo.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Rain May 14, 2013 at 11:26 PM

Instead of touting on about installations and exhibits to ‘entertain’, if you are serious, please describe how you’d propose to transpose earth’s microbe-sphere to an alien world to convert its sterile regolith into organic- and organism-rich soil. Maybe then I will look at your Kickstarter page.

danangel May 15, 2013 at 1:26 AM

But, Rain, ‘you have to vote for the bill before you can read what’s in it’,…oh, wrong phrase, …….’you have to pay for the tour before you can see what’s in the exhibit’……uh….’send me your money and then maybe I’ll tell you what I’ll spend it on’……

BryanDaviss May 15, 2013 at 7:18 PM

My neighbour Jake puts his comput?r to work and mak?s $90/h whil? working at hom?. He has been laid off for 6 months but last month his earned over $15k just working on the laptop for a few hours. Read more about it —-> http://qr.net/moneybite

Paul Eric Meyer May 15, 2013 at 7:44 AM

Think the entertainment part is about presenting the logistics of this undertaking in a way that people not highly versed in science can relate to and be more inclined to support, financially. Like teleologies make science more fun to read than something written for a peer reviewed research journal, making science entertaining results in the public generally becoming more scientifically literate.

Paul Eric Meyer May 15, 2013 at 7:49 AM

Also, this $ that may be raised through the entertainment venue can be used to refine the methods of how an incipient ecosphere can be devised to maximize chances of sucess, and refine the things that didn’t work so well.

Rain May 15, 2013 at 6:18 PM

Let’s see. I have designs for a working warp engine and a time machine. Here are the fun and exciting videos…and my Kickstarter page…

M Peter Selman May 15, 2013 at 2:40 AM

I think a good name for the gardening rover would be “Dewey.” After the squat, bipedal drone in the film, Silent Running, which was assigned to take care of a solitary, forest greenhouse, drifting through deep space.

lcrowell May 15, 2013 at 3:06 AM

The Martian regolith is filled with perchlorates. This is analogous to watering a garden on Earth with bleach. I think that it will be quite some time before humans are really living on Mars. In fact it might never happen.

I have on this forum indicated this before. The manned presence in space needs an economic incentive. We do not send humans into space for scientific purposes. Telemetered and robotic instrumentation can do all the science we want. Humans go into space for socio-economic purposes. If there is no possible economic feedback from manned space flight the whole enterprise is simply doomed. I think the best step in this direction is solar power satellites and space stations that service them. Humans might then take the next baby step out from there.

LC

GregtheThird May 15, 2013 at 3:27 AM

The perchlorate problem is a big one, but there will likely be areas of the planet where the soil is perchlorate free, or the concentration is low enough for the soil oxidization to be reduced with relative ease, making it amenable to growing plants in a very controlled environment. I agree that this kind of facility will have to be simulated and perfected on Earth before attempting to transplant it to Mars. Extensive mapping of the soil content on the surface will also be needed beforehand.
The process will by no means be as easy as the article makes it sound. One of my other concerns is the frequency of micometeor strikes. It would take just one to ruin a dome.

Kevin Frushour May 15, 2013 at 3:58 AM

Your arguments are all valid points. However having a colony on Mars that began to “make it” (produce more food and oxygen than they need) would provide a pretty strong economic incentive. Once a foothold was established, people would WANT to go – we’re out of new frontiers here on Earth, and it’s a human trait to want to get out of the town you grew up with and go to somewhere new. We’ve got hordes of people chomping at the bit to do so, but nowhere to go anymore.

Once people know they CAN go, they’ll be happy to spend money to do so. Cut rate carriers will pop up. Money will flow.

Brian Sheen May 15, 2013 at 7:27 AM

To be sure some from the US of A could travel planet Earth!

lcrowell May 16, 2013 at 1:11 PM

I doubt that tourism is going to be the main long term stimulus for humanity becoming a space faring civilization. As for people chomping at the bit to go to Mars, I suspect the relative paucity of people wanting to move to Antarctica is maybe reflective of how much people want to move to Mars. Life on Mars will not be about moving into some wide open space, but rather about living in small confined life support capsules.

LC

zetetic elench May 15, 2013 at 2:29 PM

serve up some reality sandwiches. there is no other place in this solar system remotely like Earth.
people who go to Mars will likely say ‘this is great, get me off this horrible place.”

telemetered data (telepresence) displayed in planetariums and on home screens will have to do.

what would we need to do to make Martian soil viable?

Kawarthajon May 15, 2013 at 2:43 PM

A project like this, which is big enough to support human life (they’re the ones who need oxygen), will require immense quantities of power – to find and melt the water and somehow capture it, not to mention transporting it to the greenhouse, to pressurize the air inside the greenhouse (how will you get enough glass that is strong enough to hold in the pressurized air to Mars in the first place?), and to heat the inside of the greenhouse. Ideally, you would also have some kind of magnetic shield to protect the plants from radiation (other kinds of shielding, like water, would drastically decrease the amount of solar radiation available for the plants. All of these things would require immense quantities of electrical power (i’m sure someone more clever than I can figure out approximately how much, but I’m guessing that it would be enough to power a block of large houses continuously for a small greenhouse) and the amount of power you can produce on Mars is significantly less than on Earth, despite our thick atmosphere.

In addition to the perclorates in the soil, I think that the immense power requirements of this project would be a significant challenge. They will have to find ways of drastically reducing the power requirements, such as pit greenhouses that can store passive solar energy (http://www.inspirationgreen.com/pit-greenhouses.html), although even the conditions on Earth that require pit greenhouses pale in comparison to the harshness of Mars. In the end, it may be less expensive to ship food from Earth, rather than have to ship all of these materials to Mars to construct greenhouses that are pressurized, solar powered and radiation resistant. This is the case in the short run, at least, until we can build a space elevator.

lcrowell May 16, 2013 at 1:14 PM

The idea of humanity moving into space does not have much analogue with colonization in our history. It is more like life colonizing the continents and the slow change that emerged to make the environment commensurate with life. If this happens it will take a huge amount of time. This will require that we work piece by piece to reconstruct the environments we move into. It will as you say take a large amount of energy.

LC

Aqua4U May 17, 2013 at 4:39 PM

Overpopulation… I can see a time when retiring to a colony on the Moon may be preferable to living on an irradiated stale old stinky Earth? (ACK!) Besides, I’ve always wanted to fly an HPV in a pressurized lava tube!

lcrowell May 18, 2013 at 1:57 AM

I think things would have to get really awful for space colonies to be preferrable to life on Earth. I also think few people see space colonization as a real solution to over population.
LC

Aqua4U May 15, 2013 at 7:48 PM

Did you know that perchlorates are actually beneficial to some micro organisms? “Not only can perchlorates, which are a class of salts, serve as an energy source
for potential Martian microorganisms, they are also a sensitive marker
of past climate and can lead to the formation of liquid brines under
current conditions on the planet.” http://www.space.com/20453-mars-rover-curiosity-chemistry-life.html

lcrowell May 16, 2013 at 1:05 PM

I am aware of the existence of perchorate liking microbes. However I think this has a weak dependency on whether we can convert Martian real estate into agricultural land.

LC

Aqua4U May 17, 2013 at 4:15 PM

Am researching chlorine extraction techniques even now…

Electrolytic conversion techniques are used to concentrate this halogen. All of the halogens form acids when bonded to hydrogen. If we found a source of Sodium concentrated somewhere on the surface of Mars or took some with us when we went, we could make Igloo’s with salt blocks? Retaining walls? Wind stream/flow interupts for dust collection dropouts?

lcrowell May 18, 2013 at 1:58 AM

That will take a lot of infrastructure. I suspect it will be quite some time before that can happen.
LC

Brian Sheen May 15, 2013 at 7:29 AM

The Mars garden looks an aweful lot like the Eden Project Biomes – in Cornwall UK

Kawarthajon May 15, 2013 at 2:44 PM

If you’re going to plan a mission to create a greenhouse on Mars, at least know what plants need before you get started – they do not need oxygen, they need carbon dioxide to survive (see the video).

Benj May 15, 2013 at 11:12 AM

Awesome! I have a personal project of produce Martian wine at Olympus Mons. Maybe soon…

Aqua4U May 15, 2013 at 7:25 PM

Am reading “The Lost Language Of Plants” by Stephen Harrod Duhner. In this book the author reveals the intricacies of the billions of micro-organisms plants symbiotically use for growth, health and reproduction. The organic compounds they produce to defend and protect themselves and influence their growth are VERY complex and have been only just recently identified and recognized. Yes, you can grow plants in sterile environments.. but they won’t be happy. So… you would not only have to create a place (Greenhouse) for them to grow, but also provide a biosphere they’d recognize. Sterile martian soils would have to be extensively amended or modified to be productive. How long did it take for Earth to do this? Let’s talk billions of years. In the end, it may be that we have to actually ship ‘Earth dirt’ to Mars to grow healthy food stocks/plants there… and THAT is not going to be cheap!

Justin Hartberger May 16, 2013 at 1:33 PM

Lowes could make a fortune

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