Space Farmers: NASA Examines Farming on Mars for 2030 Mission

First Posted: May 15, 2013 01:55 PM EDT

Keeping a Mars colony alive wouldn't be easy. There would have to be enough air to support the inhabitants of the colony, as well as structures that would be capable of housing people permanently. Yet perhaps most important would be the supply of food. NASA scientists have announced that in order to establish a sustainable settlement, farming will be crucial.

In fact, NASA is actively engaged in researching how to farm on Mars and in space. The space agency currently plans to send a manned mission to the Red Planet in the mid-2030s. In order to make that plan a reality, though, NASA will have to overcome some distinct challenges, including figuring out how to feed the astronauts that make the trek.

But perhaps a more pressing concern is deciding whether or not sustained human presence should actually be a goal. Currently, a private organization known as Mars One is planning to create a colony on the surface of the Red Planet. Already, they're accepting applications from would-be Mars colonizers that will take a trip to the planet and then stay there--forever.

Yet Mars One will also have to overcome challenges for feeding people. While plants can grow in microgravity, researchers aren't sure exactly how the reduced gravity on Mars may affect certain crops. In addition, Mars' surface receives about half the sunlight that Earth does, and any pressurized greenhouse will further block essential light. This means that supplemental light will need to be added, which means that power expenditures will increase significantly for the theoretical Mars colony.

"In terms of the systems engineering required, it's not an insignificant challenge," said D. Marshall Porterfield, Life and Physical Sciences division direct at NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate to Fox News.

It's not just light that the astronauts will have to deal with, though. There's also radiation that could affect plants. Since Mars lacks Earth's thick atmosphere, particles from space can reach the surface and can potentially be damaging to both people and crops. This means that proper shielding will have to be maintained.

So will we be able to farm plants on Mars? That's a very good question. Until significant hurdles like these are overcome, though, it's not likely that we'll be able to sustainably colonize the Red Planet.

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