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Posted on October 1st, 2019

Reaching Orbit – Imagining Mars

Science fiction is my favorite variety of fiction. Like fantasy, it imagines a world and a universe full of unfettered possibility. We aren’t constrained by logic or gravity. There are rules, but nearly all of them can be broken or construed into worm holes. Imagining the future of space has many of the same exciting elements. Here, we need to take into account gravity and the laws of physics, but we can still imagine technologies that don’t yet exist.

As this article from Space Magazine points out, there are five main consumable resources needed to sustain life on Mars: energy, water, oxygen, construction material and food. Obvious right? Certainly not easy. The hardest of these is food. Unlike Earth, Mars has no atmosphere and no vegetation. It’s bombarded by radiation from the Sun.

Experiments to grow food in space have been underway over the past few years, centered on leafy vegetation in miniature greenhouse conditions. But what about protein, and all those meat lovers out there who dream of colonizing Mars? Do I hear crickets? Yes, yes I do. Researchers postulate crickets could be an excellent source of animal-based protein. I think I heard a collective groan. If the idea of eating insects makes you squeamish, advances in lab-grown meat makes it a very likely alternative.

For crops, leafy vegetables might have to kick the bucket due to their energy and water needs. Researchers have found plants like corn, soybeans, potatoes, peanuts and wheat are more attractive alternatives. It’s easy to picture large hydroponic greenhouses covering Mars, but growing things underground could be a better approach. Mars is further from the Sun than Earth, and even without an atmosphere the surface is much colder. Underground, crops would be protected from radiation in a controlled environment. Strong LED lights would provide light to the crops, supplemented by light collected on the surface and piped down to the tunnels.

There are numerous unanswered questions, like what would the soil need to grow crops in this fashion? Shipping soil to Mars is too expensive and time consuming, so they’d have to make it work with much of the existing Martian soil. It’s no easy task, but with more governments and companies like SpaceX aiming to colonize space, these are questions that need answering.

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163

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