Botanic Notables: Gardening on Mars

Botanic Notables: Gardening on Mars

August 17, 2012
Photo by: NASA Ames Research Center; a garden from a series of "space colony summer studies," illustrated in the 1970s

While the Curiousity rover explores its landscape, research is underway on the first garden on Mars. After all, if we intend to spend more time away from Earth, we'll need our plants. Roses and tulips, perhaps, and especially edible vegetables, grains, and leaves.

Figuring out how to develop a sustainable, contained ecosystem is critical to any long-term human space mission, and the European Space Agency is currently testing a method of growing plants from recycled matter. The idea is to first grow plants in a closed system on Earth (specifically, research is underway in Barcelona). If that works, the ESA will try to germinate the garden on the Moon, and finally on Mars. 

MELiSSA (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative) is an artificial ecosystem to recover food, water, and oxygen from waste, carbon dioxide, and minerals. The project goes further than recycling systems used on Mir or the International Space Station, which purified water and recycled carbon dioxide. MELiSSA's innovation will be recycling organic material to grow plants. Plants will provide food as well as contribute to water purification and oxygen.

Since the project's basic principle is developing agriculture in hostile climates, it will also be useful on Earth. “With the ongoing climate change and increasing environmental problems, these new technologies can also be applicable here on Earth”, said Prof. Benedikt Sas from the Centre of Excellence Food2Know at University of Ghent.  

In an article at Science2.0, Hank Campbell explains how the physical structure will be arranged: "Based on the principle of an aquatic ecosystem, the facility consists of five interconnected compartments. In three of them, waste is progressively broken down by fermentation processes. In the fourth compartment, algae or plants are grown to produce food, oxygen and water. The fifth compartment is where the crew lives." 

Currently, the "crew" is rats; one day, hope researchers, it could be you.

Interview with artist, scientist, & TED Fellow Angelo Vermeulen, who was approached by MELiSSA to conceptualize the project. Vermeulen's work explores the future of human habitation and survival using design, engineering, modeling, art and ethics. 

NASA garden
Landscape from a "series of space colony summer studies," illustrated in the 1970s at NASA. Photo credit: NASA Ames Research Center.
Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media.