The journey to Mars started back in 2001, when the NASA-designed automated spacecraft, Mars Odyssey, was first launched into the planet’s orbit. At present, there are two rovers and as many as five orbiters studying the planet in search of any sign of life. As part of its goal of sending humans to Mars by 2030s, the organization is currently preparing for the famed Mars 2020 mission. Well speaking of the Red Planet, a team of Southampton University students has successfully managed to cultivate lettuce in a somewhat Martian environment.
For Mars to be colonized, man needs to ship food, water and even air. Although achievable, this kind of an approach isn’t necessarily a very progressive one. The true challenge here is to utilize the Martian air and resources for the purpose of sustaining life. And what better way to do it than with lettuce?! A remarkably benign and widely consumed salad green, lettuce has had a long history of being used in science and astronomy experiments. So much so that in April last year, California-based SpaceX launched a chamber housing a red romaine lettuce garden, of sorts, into space. Conducted in collaboration with NASA, this Veg-01 experiment intends to observe how well plants grow while in orbit.
Well this time around, a group of undergraduate and postgraduate research students of the University of Southampton Spaceflight Society has developed a miniature, portable greenhouse that is capable of growing lettuce using Mars’ sunlight and atmosphere. Dubbed as Lettuce On Mars, the experiment is part of a science competition funded by the Mars One group. The aim of the project is to study the practicability of cultivating crops in a Martian environment using the planet’s indigenous resources. Instead of relying on materials to be sent from Earth, the study makes use of advanced technology to achieve its goal. Talking about the experiment, Suzanna Lucarotti, the leader of the project, said:
To live on other planets we need to grow food there. No-one has ever actually done this and we intend to be the first. This plan is both technically feasible and incredibly ambitious in its scope, for we will be bringing the first complex life to another planet. Growing plants on other planets is something that needs to be done, and will lead to a wealth of research and industrial opportunities that our plan aims to bring to the University of Southampton. We have tackled diverse sets of engineering challenges, including aeroponic systems, bio filters, low power gas pressurization systems and failsafe planetary protection systems and then integrated them all into one payload on a tight mass, power and cost budget.
Possessing an aircraft-grade, strengthened aluminium body, the greenhouse comes encased inside a curved polycarbonate shell. Shaped into a dome to keep dust from accumulating, the casing acts as a protective shield against the severe Martian climate. Furthermore, it shelters the planting area from the harsh UV rays of the sun. The setup includes specialized pumps that artificially pressurize Mars’ extremely rarefied atmosphere; a heater; filters to prevent the entry of dust and a set of LED lights. The lamps facilitate the growth of the lettuces, by compensating for the lack of sufficiently bright sunlight on Mars’ surface. Individual storage units for water, growth nutrients and pH balancing chemicals are also present.
If all goes according to plan, the researchers will be the first to put a living organism on the Red Planet. An unmanned Mars One lander will be used to deliver the contraption onto the Martian surface, in the year 2018. According to the Mars One spokesperson, one of the bands present in the planet’s northern plains will act as the landing area for the spacecraft. Located between 40⁰ and 50⁰ latitudes, the region is ideal for the experiment as the atmospheric pressure here is slightly more than that in the upland areas. At the start of the seven month-long mission, the lettuce seeds will be frozen into dormancy, while the greenhouse will remain inactive.
Upon reaching the planet’s surface, the setup will get activated. First, it will be warmed to about 70⁰ to 75⁰F (21⁰ to 24⁰C) using the heating units, and then pressurized to optimum level. The air inside the greenhouse will be pumped with nutrient-infused oxygen and water vapor, produced through electrolysis. After the seeds have undergone the germination process, the growth of the plants will be tracked by means of on board cameras and sensors. Once the experiment has been successfully completed, the in-built heaters will be turned up to the highest level, in order to kill and eliminate all living organisms present inside the greenhouse.
Southampton’s Lettuce On Mars experiment is the only one, among a total of ten entries, to be short-listed from UK. The winner will get to team up with Mars One in one of its future Mars landing missions. The results of the competition will be determined via an online poll that was conducted in December.