Biologist Announces Plans To Grow Vegetables On Mars

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Mike Dixon, University of Guelph biologist, has announced plans to grow vegetables on Mars.

Vegetables on Mars

In order for humans to live off-Earth, it’s crucial that we be able to produce food. While it’s possible to pack away some resources for a journey to a planet like Mars, living there is obviously not sustainable if we don’t have a way to feed ourselves long-term. Mike Dixon, director of Guelph’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility, spoke to Motherboard about their recent research towards the goal of growing vegetables on Mars.

“Our entire program is based on having to go to the Moon and Mars, and having to grow plants for human life support,” he said.

Dixon and his team has spent the last year developing a chamber that serves as a controlled environment for growing marijuana. Although growing marijuana is obviously not a priority for space travel, the same technology that provides these beneficial growing conditions may be able to be applied to a Moon or Mars mission. With no current plans for a manned expedition to either destination, the marijuana application is simply a more immediate and practical usage considering the legalization in Canada this coming year.

According to Dixon, “All the technologies required to [grow vegetables on Mars] are being deployed in the service of growing really good marijuana.”

The Future of Plants in Space

While any sort of food is important to life in space, fresh vegetables on Mars are especially crucial as they have some important health benefits that help to outweigh the negative effects that an anti-gravity environment can have on the body. Caring for plants can also offer some well-needed sense of purpose in an environment that is largely isolated from life on Earth.

Space for transport of materials in a manned mission would obviously be very limited, but Dixon anticipates food will be grown in inflatable greenhouses that can be packed tightly and won’t take up much room. However, the technology and support needed for this type of endeavor is still a long ways off, Dixon added.

“It’s a long road, it’s 50 or 100 years from now before we have substantial plant production systems on Mars, for example, to support human exploration…We’re not just instantly going to blast off to Mars and grow 10 acres of tomatoes under an inflatable structure. There’s a lot of baby steps.”

According to Dixon, the first step in growing vegetables on Mars is to visit the moon — a far more accessible locale. While it’s possible for a moon exploration without a setup for long-term food growth, expeditions further into our solar system will necessitate these groundbreaking new growing methods.

“We’re not leaving this planet without green plants…It determines how far from Earth we can go and how long we can stay so we do absolutely, we must figure out how to routinely and reliably recycle hydroponic nutrient solutions and carbon and atmosphere and water. So I guess we’ll have a job for a while.”

From growing marijuana to developing technology that will support life on Mars, the team at Guelph’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility is doing important work that may shape the way we approach space travel in the future. While right now our focus on travel may be for relatively short expeditions, it’s clear that our eventual plan is to support life on another planet away from Earth. That goal may not be accomplished in our lifetime, but researchers like Dixon are laying the groundwork for the space expeditions of tomorrow.

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