Can Humans Produce Food on Mars?

Mars food cover

Right after the success of the first moon landing, we humans have been trying to venture onto other planets as well. Among these Mars seem to be the go-to choice for scientists, as it is closest to us and doesn’t have an atmosphere that would burn us and shower us with acid rain like Venus. As our history shows, we like to colonize any and every piece of land, then the idea of colonizing Mars doesn’t sound that surprising, however, the real challenge with this would be how to produce food for the astronauts to sustain them to build structures on the red planet.

How is Mars actually like?

Though from Earth, it may seem Mars is nothing but a giant barren land of the desert with no ocean, where a day is barely longer than Earth thanks to its slow rotation with a few ice caps here and there. The gravity on this red planet is also way less than Earth at just 3.711 m/s² but that is great, as we won’t require a trampoline to jump higher. Therefore, it seems like the perfect choice for us to travel to and even terraform it into the next blue planet.

Earth and Mars soil

A comparison between Earth and Mars’ atmospheric composition.

The problem here is that Mars doesn’t have a similar atmosphere to our planet, in fact, its atmosphere is about 100 times thinner and comprises mainly of carbon dioxide and due to this, it is bombarded with constant radiation from the Sun. Though it may seem like it is a hot planet due to its reddish-brown appearance, it’s actually freezing there with temperatures dropping to -60°c. You get the idea, it is not a welcoming place. Still, this won’t stop us from venturing into this inhospitable planet, so what can we do to produce the fuel needed by our bodies?

Growing food on Mars

In some movies, it is seen that astronaut grows food on Mars, while in others we see entire communities of humans existing like on Earth. Before we get to growing food on the planet we must take into account other important factors that must be done prior to food production. Also, we will assume important expeditions to find a decent spot, establishing a base has already been accomplished.

Mars surface rover

A photograph of the Mars surface was captured by the Curiosity Rover.

Water: If you are unfamiliar with this concept, we humans require water to survive and cannot go without it for more than two days. Just like the rover that is currently present on Mars, more equipment must be launched to the planet for storing, treating, and digging. Firstly, a specialized digger is required that would dig the surface of the planet and collect moisture-rich soil from beneath in the Northern latitudes. Then this soil will be transported by rovers into water extractors, where the soil will be heated to the point that the water starts to evaporate, this water will then be condensed and stored in special containers and finally, the dry soil will be discarded. In addition to this, water recycling plants must be established as extracting water from the soil will require vast amounts of energy and won’t be sustainable.

Oxygen: Though oxygen cylinders can be brought from Earth, they will always be in a finite amount that will be exhausted quickly. After extracting water, it can then be split into hydrogen and oxygen which can be used for breathing by the occupants within the living base. Even though it is a great way to produce oxygen, it still won’t be enough as only so much water can be extracted to split it into its constituent parts. Ultimately, the atmosphere must be generated suitable for humans on the planet, which will require the pumping out of nitrogen and oxygen constantly in huge amounts. Let’s say somehow we magically do create an environment we still have another issue with the soil.

Food: Finally, the food production on Mars. Initially, the food must be produced in a similar fashion to Hydroponics, which is a type of horticulture that grows plants without the use of soil and using alternative materials to support the roots, these, however, can only work inside the bases where sufficient water, nutrients, and artificial lighting is provided for plants by the crew. Now how do we grow food on the surface of Mars?

Live on mars

A representation of how life on Mars will be like.

Thanks to the Mars rover, scientists have been able to understand the properties of the soil on our neighboring planet. It consists basically of carbon, sulfur, and oxygen, and in an experiment, 14 different plants were planted in the soil collected from the Hawaiin volcano to mimic similar conditions. To the surprise of the scientist, these plants did grow however, they did not germinate which is essential for the production of food. On Earth, we are able to utilize soil for this task because it consists of nutrients from dead organisms and other microscopic organisms are present that aerate the soil and in order to make just an inch of topsoil it takes up to 500 years. Undoubtedly, we cannot wait that long nor do we have the patience to do so. So we can simply try planting the seeds directly into the surface of Mars and hope for the best, however, this will result in wasting valuable plant seeds as nothing will grow. Even if the plant did manage to grow some form of vegetable, it most likely will be toxic for consumption. Therefore, our next best option is to decontaminate the soil and make it nutrient-rich by adding fertilizers from the Earth and with human waste. This sounds good on paper, however, this will take an immense amount of energy and resources to produce a tiny amount of soil. In addition to that microbes and small organisms must be transported to the mars and ensure they survive the hostile climate, as they can jump-start a nutrient cycle and a healthy soil.

Another option we have is to go underground and try to produce food that grows in the dark, mushrooms for instance. Still, a similar problem exists, that they require moisture, and other nutrients from the surface and the air. Lastly, there is a huge problem of weak gravity as this will result in plants not being able to grow properly or even absorb water and there is no way to alter an entire planets’ gravity. Here we can genetically modify plants to grow in those conditions but it’s a long shot and this process is not guaranteed, nonetheless, with advancements in technology we just might be able to do it.

So can we produce food on Mars? Inside chambers, it is doable and most likely will result in the same food as on Earth but as for growing food in the soil of Mars, that is going to take extensive critical analysis, thorough testing, and burning of resources. In theory, it is possible.


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