How to grow crops on Mars if we are to live on the red planet



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We can create the right kind of food plants to survive on Mars.
Shutterstock/SergeyDV

Briardo Llorente, Macquarie University

Preparations are already underway for missions that will land humans on Mars in a decade or so. But what would people eat if these missions eventually lead to the permanent colonisation of the red planet?

Once (if) humans do make it to Mars, a major challenge for any colony will be to generate a stable supply of food. The enormous costs of launching and resupplying resources from Earth will make that impractical.

Humans on Mars will need to move away from complete reliance on shipped cargo, and achieve a high level of self-sufficient and sustainable agriculture.




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The recent discovery of liquid water on Mars – which adds new information to the question of whether we will find life on the planet – does raise the possibility of using such supplies to help grow food.

But water is only one of many things we will need if we’re to grow enough food on Mars.

What sort of food?

Previous work has suggested the use of microbes as a source of food on Mars. The use of hydroponic greenhouses and controlled environmental systems, similar to one being tested onboard the International Space Station to grow crops, is another option.

This month, in the journal Genes, we provide a new perspective based on the use of advanced synthetic biology to improve the potential performance of plant life on Mars.

Synthetic biology is a fast-growing field. It combines principles from engineering, DNA science, and computer science (among many other disciplines) to impart new and improved functions to living organisms.

Not only can we read DNA, but we can also design biological systems, test them, and even engineer whole organisms. Yeast is just one example of an industrial workhorse microbe whose whole genome is currently being re-engineered by an international consortium.

The technology has progressed so far that precision genetic engineering and automation can now be merged into automated robotic facilities, known as biofoundries.

These biofoundries can test millions of DNA designs in parallel to find the organisms with the qualities that we are looking for.

Mars: Earth-like but not Earth

Although Mars is the most Earth-like of our neighbouring planets, Mars and Earth differ in many ways.




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The gravity on Mars is around a third of that on Earth. Mars receives about half of the sunlight we get on Earth, but much higher levels of harmful ultraviolet (UV) and cosmic rays. The surface temperature of Mars is about -60℃ and it has a thin atmosphere primarily made of carbon dioxide.

Unlike Earth’s soil, which is humid and rich in nutrients and microorganisms that support plant growth, Mars is covered with regolith. This is an arid material that contains perchlorate chemicals that are toxic to humans.

Also – despite the latest sub-surface lake find – water on Mars mostly exists in the form of ice, and the low atmospheric pressure of the planet makes liquid water boil at around 5℃.

Plants on Earth have evolved for hundreds of millions of years and are adapted to terrestrial conditions, but they will not grow well on Mars.

This means that substantial resources that would be scarce and priceless for humans on Mars, like liquid water and energy, would need to be allocated to achieve efficient farming by artificially creating optimal plant growth conditions.

Adapting plants to Mars

A more rational alternative is to use synthetic biology to develop crops specifically for Mars. This formidable challenge can be tackled and fast-tracked by building a plant-focused Mars biofoundry.

Such an automated facility would be capable of expediting the engineering of biological designs and testing of their performance under simulated Martian conditions.

With adequate funding and active international collaboration, such an advanced facility could improve many of the traits required for making crops thrive on Mars within a decade.

This includes improving photosynthesis and photoprotection (to help protect plants from sunlight and UV rays), as well as drought and cold tolerance in plants, and engineering high-yield functional crops. We also need to modify microbes to detoxify and improve the Martian soil quality.

These are all challenges that are within the capability of modern synthetic biology.

Benefits for Earth

Developing the next generation of crops required for sustaining humans on Mars would also have great benefits for people on Earth.




Read more:
Before we colonise Mars, let’s look to our problems on Earth


The growing global population is increasing the demand for food. To meet this demand we must increase agricultural productivity, but we have to do so without negatively impacting our environment.

The best way to achieve these goals would be to improve the crops that are already widely used. Setting up facilities such as the proposed Mars Biofoundry would bring immense benefit to the turnaround time of plant research with implications for food security and environmental protection.

The ConversationSo ultimately, the main beneficiary of efforts to develop crops for Mars would be Earth.

Briardo Llorente, CSIRO Synthetic Biology Future Science Fellow, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Launching in May, the InSight mission will measure marsquakes to explore the interior of Mars



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InSight aims to figure out just how tectonically active Mars is, and how often meteorites impact it.
NASA

Katarina Miljkovic, Curtin University

When we look up at Mars in the night sky we see a red planet – largely due to its rusty surface. But what’s on the inside?

Launching in May, the next NASA space mission will study the interior of Mars.

The InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) spacecraft will be a stationary lander mission that measures seismic activity on Mars (often referred to as marsquakes) as well as interior heat flow.




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A brief history of Martian exploration – as the InSight Lander prepares to launch


By listening to and probing the Martian crust and interior, the project aims to understand the formation and evolution of Mars.

The InSight mission is scheduled to launch from California in early May, with landing on Mars planned for November. The expected lifetime of the mission is at least two years.

Origins of marsquakes

The payload on board InSight includes the seismic instrument SEIS (Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure). Its task is to record seismic activity, or vibrations, of the planet.

Apart from shaking the ground while passing, seismic waves can be extremely useful in telling us about the structure of planetary interiors. Seismic waves travel at different speeds when passing through different materials. Processing their arrival time and strength via recorded seismographs is a clever way to learn about the interior structure of a planetary body – such as the crust, the next layer down (the mantle), and the core.

Seismic activity on Mars could be caused by a number of processes. For example, shallow marsquakes could originate from meteoroid strikes, and deep marsquakes could come from martian tectonic activity (the movement of tectonic plates at the surface of the planet).

It is generally believed that tectonic processes could have shaped Mars in its early evolution, similar to the Earth. However, unlike the Earth in younger ages, Mars has become largely tectonically dormant.

We think lots of meteoroids hit Mars

Considering that tectonics on Mars may not be reminiscent of what we see on our planet, we suspect that meteoroid strikes will play a major role in causing marsquakes.

On Earth, frequent and small meteoroids most often burn up in the atmosphere and appear to us as a form of “shooting star”. When a rock from space moving at supersonic speed encounters the terrestrial atmosphere, the air in front of it gets compressed extremely quickly. Temperature rises and heat builds up, so the rock starts to shine bright under the process of its destruction.




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However, on Mars we think that meteoroids may not necessarily burn up entirely upon encountering the martian atmosphere. This is simply because Mars has a less dense atmosphere than the Earth – so incoming meteoroids have a higher penetrating power. These impact events would produce seismic disturbance in the atmosphere, and also likely in the ground.

Detecting meteoroid strikes on planetary bodies began with the lunar Apollo program. Apollo missions carried seismometers to the Moon, and as a result we had a network of seismometers that operated on the Moon from 1969-77.

During its lifetime, the Apollo seismic network recorded shallow quakes produced by frequent meteoroid bombardment. Considering that the Moon does not have an atmosphere to protect its surface from the incoming meteoroids, the Apollo seismic network provided heaps of seismic data from the Moon. These impact-induced seismic moonquakes provided the first constraints about the thickness of the lunar crust as well as structure of crust and deep interior.

We’ve tried to measure Mars seismic activity before

During the lunar exploratory boom with the Apollo program, NASA also launched Vikings 1 and 2 to Mars in 1975. These became the first missions to land on Mars, and each Viking mission carried a seismometer.

While instruments on Viking have collected more data than expected, the seismometer on Viking Lander 1 did not work after landing. The seismometer on Viking Lander 2 demonstrated poor detection rates, with no quakes coming off the ground (as it had remained on the Lander).

To date, we have had no other seismic station on any extraterrestrial planetary body. This makes InSight the first-of-its-kind mission to be placed on Mars. While its design relies on proven technologies from past missions, it is ground-breaking in terms of expected science goals.

Instead of making orbital remote sensing surveys or roving on the surface similar to other rovers, InSight has a different goal to previous Martian missions.




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Why are we so interested in the subsurface of Mars?

Mars and Earth differ in size, temperature, and atmospheric composition. But similar geological features such as craters, volcanoes, or canyons can be observed on both planets. This implies that the interior of Mars may be similar to Earth’s.

It is also quite likely that there was liquid water on the surface of ancient Mars, which was the time Mars could have been very similar to Earth. So Mars could answer questions about the ancient habitability of our solar system.

Unlike potentially habitable planets orbiting distant stars, Mars is reachable within our lifetime. Discovering martian crustal properties is of great importance when it comes to planning landing missions and investigating signs of extraterrestrial habitability.

The ConversationMy role in the InSight mission is to work with the science team in analysing the data (impact-induced seismograms and any respective orbital imagery) to work out what kind of impacts had occurred during the mission lifetime.

Katarina Miljkovic, ARC DECRA fellow, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.