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farming in space

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Research scientist Wieger Wamelink and student Line Schug of Wageningen University & Research have been conducting research into finding suitable locations to grow vegetables on Mars. Using data from a series of maps of Mars, they drew up a 3-D map showing the best sites for growing vegetables on this faraway planet. Information about suitable cultivation sites is crucial for the possible colonisation of Mars, because growing food crops will be one of the key tasks for the first astronauts.

To obtain the necessary data, the research team made use of several maps of Mars that were made freely available by NASA, Arizona State University and JPL. “This research was made possible by the abundance of data about Mars that is now available,” explains Wieger Wamelink.

Key figures from outer space

The maps used by Wamelink and Schug provided insight into such information as the mineral composition of the soil and the presence of heavy metals. In addition to this, they also provided information about the calcium content of the soil, the climate and temperature, the terrain elevation and the radiation levels on the planet.

No open field cultivation

According to the data gathered by Wamelink and Schug, they were able to calculate the suitability for growing crops for each location individually. Food will, however, be grown indoors on Mars because the outdoor circumstances on the planet make growing crops in the open field impossible. “There is almost no atmosphere, the outdoor temperature is 50 to 60 degrees below zero on average and cosmic radiation is intense,” explains Schug. Growing vegetables will therefore probably be easiest underground.

Positive cultivation factors

Despite the fact that crops cannot be grown on Mars in the open field, the terrain conditions and the temperature will nevertheless have an impact on choosing the best possible site for plant growth. “High levels of heavy metals in the soil and strong radiation make a location unsuitable for growing vegetables,” says Schug. “Relatively high temperatures or calcium content and a relatively flat terrain are positive environmental factors with a view to establishment and growing vegetables.”

Landing site

An inventory made by Wageningen UR reveals that a number of favourable sites for vegetable cultivation overlap sites where landings have been made, or are planned. This is good news for projects whose objective is the colonisation of Mars. If the planet were to be colonised, it is crucial that vegetables are grown near the landing site. The 3-D map created by Wamelink and Schug shows that the Mars Pathfinder and Viking 1 both landed on sites that are suitable for growing crops.

Food for Mars and Moon

Charting out suitable locations for growing food on Mars is part of an overarching research project called ‘Food for Mars and Moon’, and for which Wageningen UR is investigating possibilities for growing vegetables on Martian and lunar soil. Up until today, the University succeeded in growing ten different types of vegetables on Martian and lunar soil simulants.

Source: Wageningen UR. Photos: SAIC.

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How is an astronaut similar to a tomato farmer? They both need to reuse their raw materials, proclaims researcher Angelo Vermeulen in Dutch newspaper Het Algemeen Dagblad. The Belgian biologist will be giving lectures at the World Horti Centre starting on 19 January. He will be presenting seven knowledge sessions, open to the public, examining what the horticulture sector can learn from the Aerospace industry.

According to Vermeulen the methods used in outer space should be copied on earth as well as by the horticulture sector. ‘It is simply impossible to take everything you want along with you to outer space. Therefore, you must be able to reuse everything you have. The general answer to this question is therefore: circular thinking.’

The circular greenhouse

Vermeulen is of the opinion that the horticulture sector should switch to a fully closed ecosystem. ‘In which waste water is purified to serve as a raw material, for example. Plant waste is transformed into nutrients for new plants, and solar heat serves as a source of energy. To put it briefly, a greenhouse in which everything is reused, nothing is lost and the environment is spared to the greatest possible extent. Exactly in the same way that we set to work in outer space.’ If it were up to Vermeulen, greenhouses like this will be available in 20 years’ time. ‘The objective of my lectures is to bridge the gap between science and day-to-day practice. There are enough concepts available for a circular greenhouse, but their practical application will take years to implement. Why is this so? A lack of knowledge, and everything is still rather fuzzy.’

Reuse of water

One of the subjects that Vermeulen will investigate in his lectures at the World Horti Centre is the reuse of water. ‘Water reuse is perhaps the most important subject in environments like that on Mars. You have to be very frugal, just as in a greenhouse. Reusing water, or recirculating it, is not yet the standard in the greenhouse horticulture sector, even though there are already many greenhouses that do reuse water. It is the intention that all farmers will be putting this into practice in the long term. Water should be used more frequently as a substrate, for example.’

Farming in space

According to the biologist, there is no room for chemical crop protection agents in a circular greenhouse. Additionally, the farmer – just as an astronaut on Mars – will have to cope with space constraints. ‘This will become part of horticulture in the future: growing crops in an urban environment, resulting in a shorter production chain. This can be directly compared to the infrastructure needed to grow crops on the moon or on Mars: making optimum use of the limited space available and a high degree of controllability.’
Seed grower Rijk Zwaan has already had some of its seeds projected into space by NASA to discover how seeds can germinate and plants can grow without gravity. But will we actually start growing food in space? ‘Certainly, there is no doubt about it. And that’s why it would be a good idea to start making all our systems circular right now,’ concludes Vermeulen.

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Click here to register for one of the lectures, free of charge.

Source: AD/LTO Glaskracht. Photo: The New York Hall of Science/Wikimedia.