Growing Plants on Mars
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To be able to live on Mars, humans need breathable air, clean water, and nutritious food. Spacesuits can provide oxygen to breathe, ice on Mars can be a source of water, but how could we get nutritious food? Today's astronauts bring food with them. But a manned trip to Mars would require food that was either successfully grown in space or on Mars, as taking the extra weight of food for such a long time—it takes 6–9 months one way—is just too costly. In this project, you will explore how regolith—the ground cover of Mars—can be used to grow food.
Since there are no living organisms on Mars, the ground cover does not contain any organic material. As "soil," by definition, contains organic material, the ground cover of Mars cannot technically be called "soil." At the time of writing this project, in late 2020, samples of Martian ground cover have not been returned to Earth, but information gathered by Martian rovers give us a good idea of its characteristics. The ground cover on Mars is called regolith, which is a loose, heterogeneous mixture of broken rock and dust. To allow for further exploration, samples simulating Martian regolith are available for purchase on Earth.
You might be wondering how regolith can be used to produce food. On Earth, most plants get the essential nutrients they need from the organic material found in soil. Regolith does not contain organic material, but could it support plant growth in other ways? Here are some questions you might want to explore:
- Can you grow edible plants in regolith if organic fertilizer is added? If so, what type, how much, and how often is fertilizer needed? Can fertilizer be made locally or does it need to be transported from Earth?
- Once you have found a way to grow plants in fertilized regolith, what type of edible plants grow well in this ground cover? What plants would be most beneficial in terms of nutrition, how fast they grow, how easy they are to grow, etc.?
- On Earth, people have had success with hydroponics, which is growing edible plants in water instead of soil. Different techniques for this process exist, but Science Buddies' Hydroponics Made Easy activity can show you one way. Would Martian regolith be a good growing medium for hydroponics? What type of edible plants would do well in this environment? Would we transport the nutrients, or is there a way to make them on Mars?
- Earthworms enrich and aerate soil on Earth. They eat decaying material and help speed up decomposition, making the nutrients in dead organic matter more readily available to new growth. In addition, their tunneling habits loosen the ground cover, allowing more oxygen to penetrate. Could earthworms be a solution to enrich Martian regolith? If so, which type of worms would work best? What type of food can Martians provide their worms? Take a look at the projects Feeding Earthworms: Do Different Diets Affect Them and the Soil They Enrich? and Where Do Earthworms Hang Out When Food Is Around? for background information on worms, as well as ideas on how to set up an experiment with earthworms.
- Fungi help speed up decomposition of organic material, making the nutrients more readily available to new growth. In addition, edible fungi are nutritious. Could fungi be a promising solution to create an agricultural system on Mars? If so, which type of fungi would work best? Would the fungi need to be shielded from Martian temperatures and radiation levels? The article Astromycology: The Fungal Frontier can provide you with some background information on this field of study.
The question that you decide to explore is the starting point of the scientific method. Conducting a fair test is one of the most important ingredients of doing good, scientifically valuable experiments. To ensure that your experiment is a fair test, you must change only one factor at a time, while keeping all other conditions the same. For example, if you would like to explore the effect of fertilizers, all other factors, like the type of plants, the amount for water given, light conditions, etc., need to be the same for the different groups studied.
Remember that quantitative data is better than qualitative data. To assess plants quantitatively, the number of leaves, the height of the plant, the size of the largest leaf, and the mass of the root system are all quantitative measurements.
Do not forget to represent your data in graphs, give a clear conclusion, and look for ways to delve deeper into the subject.
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This project explores topics key to Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure: Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.
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