Growing Plants on Mars… on Earth

One of the biggest challenges of traveling to Mars is that it’s far away. That might seem obvious, but that comes with its own set of problems when compared to traveling to something relatively close like the Moon. The core issue is weight, and this becomes a big deal when you have to feed several astronauts for months or years. If food could be grown on Mars, however, this would make the trip easier to make. This is exactly the problem that [Clinton] is working on with his Martian terrarium, or “marsarium”.

The first task was to obtain some soil that would be a good analog of Martian soil. Obtaining the real thing was out of the question, as was getting similar dirt from Hawaii. [Clinton] decided to make his own by mixing various compounds from the hardware store in the appropriate amounts. From there he turned to creating the enclosure and filling it with the appropriate atmosphere. Various gas canisters controlled by gas solenoid valves mixed up the analog to Martian atmosphere: 96% dioxide, 2% argon, and 2% nitrogen. The entire experiment was controlled by an Intel Edison with custom circuits for all of the sensors and regulating equipment. Check out the appropriately dramatic video of the process after the break.

While the fern that [Clinton] planted did survive the 30-day experiment in the marsarium, it wasn’t doing too well. There’s an apparent lack of nitrogen in Martian soil which is crucial for plants to survive. Normally this is accomplished when another life form “fixes” nitrogen to the soil, but Mars probably doesn’t have any of that. Future experiments would need something that could do this for the other plants, but [Clinton] notes that he’ll need a larger marsarium for that. And, if you’re not interested in plants or Mars, there are some other interesting ramifications of nitrogen-fixing as well.

57 thoughts on “Growing Plants on Mars… on Earth

        1. If we just rocket all our excess cow poop from earth into the martian surface everything will be solved, global warming, martian tomatoes, vent excess methane on mars to heat it up and in 10000 years maybe martian water will thaw. Nobel prize plz.

          1. I’ve actually suggested that the first Martian colonies should target heavy industry and be powered by burning plant matter. For a few centuries, dumping excessive greenhouse gasses would actually be desirable.

    1. Needs less atmosphere.

      No, seriously. This is only representative if the martian atmosphere were turbocharged to the same absolute pressure as earth’s. Lower pressures would be easier and cheaper to maintain, so it’s worth trying this in a partial vacuum. While turbocharging is definitely possible, I think it’s definitely a consideration here as to the authenticity of the experiment.

      1. the nodules? I happen to have a question about this symbiosis between legumes and the bacteria: I understand the energy comes from sugars from the hosting plant (thanks to photosynthesis), but how does the bacteria get the N2? does it only get it from the soil (air in the voids of the soil?) or does it get it from the plant? in what form, dissolved? in what?

        1. Decent soil is quite loose and aerated, and the bacteria bind nitrogen directly from the air(as far as I know, maybe there are also other processes).
          If a soil is dense plants with strong roots force their way in, die, rot and provide air channels, the soil freezing also loosens it as the water expands, and the soil becomes more aerated, so more bacteria, so bigger plants, etc.
          So the bacteria don’t get air directly from plants, but plants still make it possible.

          Aside from the bacteria needing air, plant roots also need some air just so they don’t rot, so it’s hard to say how much benefit you get from the bacteria alone, but I notice my beans are bigger and have more root nodules now that I have a more airy soil.

  1. Martian atmosphere is just about 600 Pa, about 0.6% of that on Earth – and plants don’t do too well in a near-vacuum. I think it’s much more likely that any present atmosphere is going to be brought along from Earth. It’s an interesting experiment, but it might be more useful to find out what’s the most weight-efficient way of augmenting Martian regolith to support plant growth, while still using an Earth-like atmosphere.

    1. I think the idea here is that you compress the native atmosphere inside of a collapsible biosphere that you have landed on Mars, thereby negating the necessity of bringing along large quantities of heavy, compressed earth atmosphere. Add water and organic materials and see if it can terraform itself. The water and temperature, I think, would be the larger questions.

        1. That’s just it, you don’t worry about the mixture. you want the organics to do the work for you and balance itself. We already have the billions of years of programming experience built into the organics by nature. Added with the extra knowledge we’ve gathered since the sciences were born to coax things a little. Work smarter, not harder. Just imagine, what we can learn with our Mars experience we can then apply to the uninhabited but almost habitable worlds we discover in the future, sending ahead seed probes across the unfathomable distances to prepare the way for our colonists. The Weyland-Yutani corporation is yet to be born, I think we can bypass the giant atmospheric processor reactors in favor of a lighter touch.

    2. There’s a lot of talk in this thread of the atmosphere, but really who cares. It’s unlikely the plants are going to cope with the temperature ranges for -50 to -153 deg at night.

  2. There is no way he is getting the atmosphere composition correct with this setup. I would ditch the N2 and Ar, and just use CO2. Unless he is using microbes that harness N2, the other gasses are not doing anything significant. As far as the lack on nitrogen goes in the soil, we have the same issue on earth. We have to artificially add fertilizer to all our crops. We would need to carry ammonia to Mars or synthesis it from water and N2 on site. No way around that.

    Lastly, plants are hardly ever grown in pure isolation. They need a biome to thrive, and I imagine you’d need to mimic one on Mars to successfully grow plants. I’d suggest making a much larger box with a variety of plants and even insects. Then purge slowly with pure CO2 and see which ones survive. It will take quite a few generations of artificial selection to breed plants, microbes, and insects that like the environment, but you could probably get there. Then, sell them to NASA.

      1. I believe nitrogen fixing requires abundant N2 in the local atmosphere. If you wanted to keep the plants hermetically sealed from the atmosphere, that would be fine, but if you could find a way for them to grow in the martian atmosphere, it would make the food production an order of magnitude easier.

  3. Four things come to mind:

    What was the pressure, did they they compress the Martian atmosphere to stop water boiling at 10 degrees Celsius (with the low atmospheric pressure on Mars liquid water is restricted to the range 0 °C to 10 °C).

    What was the temperature of the experiment, although with enough insulation and an energy source it would not matter if, the external temperature has an average of −55 °C (218 K; −67 °F) with a peak in summer around the equator (where there is no water containing ice) of about 20 °C (293 K; 68 °F) at midday.

    There are nitrogen separation membranes that can be used to separate gases (CO2 is a bigger molecule compared to N2 and Ar – ref: ) so at energy low cost you could isolate N2 + Ar from and vent excessive CO2 at pressure back into the Martian Atmosphere (or store it, since energy was expended to pressurise it). Anyhow my point is that the since the atmosphere needs to be controlled to maintain life, why not control it just that little bit more.

    Maybe use Darwinism, so slowly migrate the bacteria in the soil on earth to one which thrives better in possible controlled Martian atmosphere ratio: X% Carbon dioxide Y% Nitrogen and Y% argon. e.g 20% CO2 to 40% Nitrogen 40% Argon or 30% CO2 to 35% N and 35% Ar or 40% CO2 to 30% N and 30% Ar or ……. So you would start out with an Earth like atmosphere and over a number of years slowly migrate it to so a number of possible controlled Martian atmospheres. And seen which ones do best.

  4. The other option is that we design and create GMOs optimized to thrive on Mars. These could be then seeded by unmanned missions thus sparing the expense of a continued human presence until conditions improve on the planet.

      1. Well this whole project assumes that we will be attempting to colonize Mars and that isn’t going to happen in a sterile bubble. One would hope that by the time we choose to do so it will have been established that Mars is devoid of native organisms, or that they have been found and studied. In the end, however the decision to terraform Mars (and that’s exactly what planting on the planet will start doing) is one that is going to have to be weighed by what will be lost vs what will be gained.

    1. Of course, GMOs have to be used. The optimal way probably involves an engineered community, with bacteria fixing nitrogen, and something like yeast an algae generating the organical compounds to feed the humans or the actual food plants. Anything with Leafs would only be a small proportion if at all present.

      But all of this wouldn’t be “free-ranging” but rather it would be grown in pressurized enclosures. And it would probably not work for short time presence of astronauts, but more likely for a colony.

      Which reminds me of “The Expanse” actually. Their primary food source beyond Mars seems to be yeast, whereas Mars is pretty much self sufficient at four billion inhabitants, and they still haven’t achieved terraforming.

      1. Mars probably will never have more than a few hundred people until they get food beyond yeast and algae.
        Of course once you have a few thousand people you have the man power to build mega structures such as domes the size of stadiums.
        just make sure the first colonists are pulled from the ranks of people like oil workers,miners, and heavy construction.

      2. Of course GMOs will have to be used! Because there probably isn’t anything left that is edible and isn’t a GMO. Even the weeds in your lawn are likely something that some people in some time period cultivated for food, medicine or recreational use. In the process no doubt they bred and hybridized it into a form that nature would have never created on it’s own.

  5. The surface of mars has markedly higher levels of radiation because of Mars’ lack of a magnetosphere. To terraform Mars, you need to fix that first. Give Mars a proper magnetic field and it’ll stop shedding what atmosphere it has to the solar wind.

      1. It would leak away from solar wind but this would happen on geologic time scales longer than what civilization or even humanity has existed for.
        Heck even an Earth atmosphere around the moon would last longer than recorded history.

    1. Place solar panels on the surface, be deep underground with enough dirt above to provide the same level of radiation protection that the atmosphere on earth provides. Oh on Mars you weigh 0.38 your weight on Earth. So apart from only receiving 40% of the light level on earth, this reduction means that plants will probably grow as large, but be less dense. You might think that you would need 60% more food but since the effort to things would be less it is not true unless you wanted to someday return to earth. Basically moving to Mars for any length of time is a one way ticket, unless you plan to be 60% more physically active.

    1. I’d go with a buffer gas of N2 this could even be gathered from the Martian atmosphere with nothing more than a molecular sieve.
      Some O2 will be needed as plants still need it for darkness.

  6. Part of the prep for terraforming Mars should be giving it a decent moon. Start by moving Deimos and Phobos to gently smack together, then collect some rocks from the asteroid belt, perhaps go for some large KBOs from out beyond Pluto.

    Would Deimos, Phobos, Eros, Vesta and Ceres put together be enough mass? “Ceres first! We’ll moon the other asteroids later.”

    Once there’s enough mass lumped together to have a Mars:moon ratio similar to the Earth:moon ratio there will be tidal forces acting on the planet. Would that be enough to jumpstart its geologic activity? Get Mars hotted up via tidal squeezing to get some melting happening (or reinvigorate what’s left, if any) so some volcanoes will pop and spew out some gasses.

    Mars is going to need water, a hell of a lot of it. The moon building project is going to bring in a lot of it. The heat from the new moon gravitationally crunching itself into a sphere would surround it in an atmosphere of water vapor, lasing as long as the heat on the surface stays above the vapor point for water. Tank up on the moon, radiate the heat into space until it freezes then slide out the blocks of ice – aim at Mars. Ice meteors.

    Atmosphere will be needed, lots of it. 70% of it nitrogen, 20% oxygen. The oxy would be the easiest, obtainable from KBOs and chunks from elsewhere, perhaps mines on moons of Jupiter. Now, where, aside from Earth, is the largest / easiest to get at source of nitrogen? There shouldn’t be any need to bring in more carbon dioxide, may have to find a way to get rid of a lot of it.

    If the EM drive proves to be both workable and scalable to large size, a project like this becomes far easier. Build EM drive pushers powered by RTGs. With decades worth of power they could speed out to the Kuiper Belt in one to two years. Communications across the solar system could be improved by using laser repeaters sent out to solar orbit at various distances, put there with EM drive. The more distant ones would use the RTG for powering the comm equipment and would need to cycle back home every decade or so for a refuel. From Jupiter inward they could be solar powered.

    1. If you can move asteroids and KBOs smack them into Venus it’s almost the size of Earth and only lacks a magnetosphere because it lacks spin.
      Several glancing blows could spin it up.
      The CO2 would have to either be gotten rid of some how or converted into carbonate rock some how.

  7. I think this is a great build, and I’m somewhat disappointed by the unconstructive comments.
    Obviously this setup is not complete regarding pressure, temperature, and sunlight, but it’s a good quality build nonetheless.
    Anyone can criticize from the comments; if you think this build was lacking then I recommend you build a better one yourself. I for one would love to see it!

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