The challenge of growing food on Mars

NASA studies ways to enable sustainable agriculture on Red Planet

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Should the next Mars rover double as a tractor?

Image credit: Flickr/NASA Goddard Photo and Video


Above and beyond the challenges of getting humans safely to Mars, NASA and the various private companies planning permanent colonies on the Red Planet have to consider a renewable food supply for the settlers, the McDonald's lengthy franchising process being what it is.

Fortunately, NASA is on top of this. Unfortunately, there are tremendous potential obstacles to enabling agriculture on Mars.

Among other things, NASA researchers have no idea how Martian gravity will affect crops normally grown on Earth. Also, Mars is further away from the sun and therefore gets much less sunlight, which would make it even more difficult to grow crops. Then there's radiation, usually helpful to Earthbound sodbusters because enough is filtered out by our atmosphere. Not so on Mars, where the surface (and any plants growing on it) will get a huge dose unless it somehow can be mitigated.

The real stumbling block to permanent agriculture on Mars, however, is the massive, ongoing technological effort to keep it all going. As Taber MacCallum, chief executive officer of Paragon Space Development Corp., tells Space.com, "To maintain the infrastructure is the expensive part to grow plants, coupled with the need for redundancy if something fails."

So expensive would be this infrastructure, he said, that for missions of less than 15 to 20 years, it might be more cost-effective to simply ship food to Mars.

Mickey D's, anyone?

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