Colonising Mars 101: Growing some veggies

Why we all might die

Did you ever lose photos that mattered a lot to you because you lost your computer/phone/camera? Did you not wish you had done a backup? Well, that is where we are currently heading by keeping all knowledge of humankind, all art, everything we ever created and all humans on one single planet. Earth. Wouldn’t it be tragic if all that was lost due to some asteroid hitting earth, some virus wiping humans out or even us humans driving ourselves extinct?
Now, as an ordinary person, you’ll probably ponder about this, maybe even feel a little despair and hopelessness towards the inevitable eradication of humankind, only to forget about it in a few minutes and start doing your way overdue backup because I just reminded you of it.

But Elon Musk is not your ordinary person

President Barack Obama (l) and Elon Musk (r) in front of one of Musk’s rockets
Image Credit: NASA HQ PHOTO via Flickr

When faced with the idea of humankind going extinct, he thought: We’d better colonise Mars to prevent that from happening.
To cite him: “I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad”. He was shocked to find how little effort space agencies were putting into exploring Mars. He’s an incredibly intelligent, successful entrepreneur and in 2001 had just gotten a huge cash out for selling PayPal. So, with time and money in his hands Elon planned to do the craziest and probably most expensive PR campaign the world would have ever seen. His plan: Send a few robots to Mars with the job of planting some seeds and eventually take a mesmerizing photo of plants growing on Mars that goes viral on earth to get the public super excited for Mars and thus increase governmental funds for Mars projects.
Sadly, this plan turned out too costly as even the cheapest rockets from the Russians were too expensive. Naturally, he gave up, right? No? Oh… I guess he…Ok. If the PR campaign wouldn’t work and none of the space agencies were planning to colonise Mars he would just have to do it himself. So, he read a lot of books about space engineering, talked to experts, liked the idea of a private aerospace company competing with governmental space agencies and then founded SpaceX with the goal of getting humans on Mars before 2040 and with the long-term aim of creating a colony of at least a million humans. All this while also revolutionizing the whole car industry with amazing electric cars (Tesla), improving renewable energy sources (SolarCity) and just now deciding to create a brain computer interface (Neuralink). As one does. But enough with Elon Musk fanboying.

Let’s assume for the sake of this post that the Russians gave him a buy 2 get 3 discount for the rockets and he would have sent them to Mars to take some plant photos. Would it have been as easy as throwing some seeds into Martian soil, waiting a few weeks and taking the photo?
Unfortunately not.

Why it’s hard to grow plants on Mars
Even though Mars, the fourth planet, is the most earth like planet in our solar system, it differs from Earth.

Real size comparison of the Earth, Mars and the Moon
Image credit: Combination of two Photos. Mars: NASA, Comparison: Wikimedia Commons

Gravity, atmosphere and temperature

Mars is a lot smaller than earth and thus only has one third of earth’s gravity. But the good news: Plants are currently growing healthily in the weightlessness of the International Space Station (ISS). The red planet is 1.5 times further away from the sun than earth and thus receives only 42% of sunlight. This makes the red planet a lot colder with an average temperature of -60°C (-80°F). Not only that but the temperature on Mars goes up to 20°C (70°F) during the day and -70°C (-100°F) at night. You wouldn’t leave your potted plants outside with such a weather, right?

Our Atmosphere keeps Earth’s temperature at a steady level as it blocks some heat energy from the sun but also stores the heat of the day during night. This effect doesn’t play a role on Mars as its atmosphere is very thin, only 0.6% of Earth’s atmosphere. Imagine a peanut butter jelly sandwich with only a little knife tip of peanut butter jelly on your sandwich. Wouldn’t be quite the same, would it? Mars’ atmosphere also consists of different gases than ours, mainly carbon dioxide.
What does all of this mean for our plant? It can only survive in a pressurized, temperature regulated and gas regulated chamber (which would also protect it from the damaging UV light that passes through Martian atmosphere).

Soil and water
But a plant also needs soil, with nutrients to grow on and of course: water.
Martian soil does have most of the nutrients that a plant needs to grow, however not in the right amounts to ensure good growth, so fertilizer would still be a huge help for any gardener on Mars. A study and a pre-experiment have shown that plants actually grow on Martian soil, well at least on a “fake” Martian soil as no spacecraft has ever returned from Mars.
Without water, any plant is doomed to die (as my parents can attest when my brother forgot to water the plants during 2 weeks of vacation). Mars has huge amounts of water stored frozen in its polar caps. But a plant needs liquid water, which is scarce on Mars, although it has been found when certain environmental conditions were met. But this would be an unstable source of water for our plant. Thus, unless we send a robot to grab some ice from the poles we should bring it with us.

A bright future
So, if only the Russians would have been a little more inclined to offer Elon Musk a discount and he would have sent a greenhouse chamber, some fertilizer, water, a few seeds and Wall-E to assemble it all on Mars we might have just ended up with a picture like this.

Image Credit: Combination from NASA, Wall-E by beatto and greenhouse by Victoria

All in all, we can say that growing plants on Mars is not science fiction and with new technologies developed everyday nothing stands in our way of colonising Mars. It is in our nature as humans to explore, to discover, to unravel the mysteries of the universe. Following our curiosity has led us on every continent of the earth, into the deepest of the sea and even on the moon. Now, it’s time to follow our curiosity into our solar system on a little red planet called Mars.

Further Reading

First, don’t forget to back up your data! Do it now. Think of all the photos and work… all gone forever.

If you are interested in Elon Musk, his companies and how he wants to colonise Mars I recommend this very well written series of blogposts from my favorite blogger: WaitbutWhy

NASA Mars page: https://mars.nasa.gov/

 

 


8 Responses to “Colonising Mars 101: Growing some veggies”

  1. Alex Weiss Aparicio says:

    Wow, that project is really cool! Thanks a lot for sharing it with me. I just looked at the results of the potato experiment and they look promising!

  2. Michelle Quach says:

    Hey Alex – interesting post. Check out this citizen science project where you can contribute data by growing plants in a greenhouse with simulated mars-like conditions: http://www.borderlabs.org/projects/watch-me-grow/

    Also – the International Potato Centre in Peru has just identified a variety of potato they think could be suitable for conditions on mars:
    https://cipotato.org/press-room/blog/potatoes-on-mars/

  3. Alex Weiss Aparicio says:

    @Alex
    Hahaha, I am glad it worked 😀 Thanks a lot!

  4. Alex says:

    Great post Alex. Loved the opening paragraph, it really made me want to continue reading. I guess doom and gloom really does work! Enjoyed the use of humour. You seemed to get the balance spot on.

  5. Alex Weiss Aparicio says:

    @Sam
    Mars will definitely be our first. Travel between stars is still far off. For example, the closest star Alpha centauri is 4.3 light years away. If the spacecraft New Horizon (the one that reached Pluto in 2015 after 9 and a half years) would be directed at Alpha Centauri it would take 78,000 years to get there. And even if we find methods of reaching light speed its still 4.3 years away. That is a long time and would make communication impossible, as getting an answer would take 8.6 millions years. The nearest habitable planet with similar gravity and temperature is 22 light years away. Interstellar space travel (travel between stars) would require travelling at or near speed of light and still you would have huge travel times. As it is impossible to travel faster than the speed of light we would have to find a way around that, e.g. wormholes or warping. There are lots of theories, but we are still far away from having anything usable, so Mars will definitely be our first.
    Thanks for commenting and good job on backing up 😀

  6. Sam Heselev says:

    Thanks for that Alex, really interesting piece, and helpful – I have now backed up everything!

    NASA now seems to be regularly finding potentially habitable planets just tens of light years away (super close!). Is there any chance we’d first colonise a planet other than Mars? Could we possibly find a planet with more plentiful water that would make for easier living? Or does the distance factor mean that Mars will definitely be our first?

  7. Alex Weiss Aparicio says:

    @yoww
    I really don’t think so. It is not like we are gonna give up living on earth. Climate change is a pressing issue that we will have to resolve and battle in the coming decades. Even with a million people on Mars which is SpaceX’ current plan there would be 7 billion left on earth who want to live here. Space colonization is something that will happen over the next centuries and even then I would be very surprised if we would manage to get the whole human population of earth.
    Mars colonization is just a first step to becoming a multiplanetary species. But this first step could unite us as humans, as a species. There are no nationalities on Mars, it is an event and an achievement that we, as humankind would achieve. At the moment and until we manage to transform a whole planet so as to resemble the earth, especially so that it can support human life (terraform) earth will be by far the most livable place in the solar system and it`s crucial we keep it that way.
    Basically I share my view with this 6 minute Ted talk.
    Thanks for the comment!
    PS: Cool, I didn’t know either that you were doing this subject. We can talk more about this on Wednesday 😀

  8. yoww says:

    Hey didn’t know you did this subject too! Good article, pretty funny too. Do you think, however, that the “possibility” of space colonization takes away from the agency of climate change (which I would say is more imedient and pressing)?