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Green Plants for Mars Mission 262

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the algae-again-tonight-eh-hal dept.
An anonymous reader writes "NASA doesn't keep back that they are going to send a human expedition to Mars in a couple of decades. One of the obstacles for the longstanding 35-million-mile voyage is a food production. NASA researchers have focused on 20 plant species that NASA believes could be grown during a flight to Mars and after landing on the fourth planet from the Sun. By far not all of them are suitable for space expedition."
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Green Plants for Mars Mission

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  • summary=story (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Emugamer (143719) * on Sunday October 24, 2004 @12:35PM (#10614384) Homepage Journal
    wow that is such a fluff piece, it says that the actual information will be released later on, it doesn't mention the species of plants looked at, it doesn't explain much other then they look at byproducts and that they want to help the crew survive... :) where is the geeky stuff?
    • by Black Parrot (19622) on Sunday October 24, 2004 @12:53PM (#10614485)


      > wow that is such a fluff piece, it says that the actual information will be released later on, it doesn't mention the species of plants looked at

      They don't want to scare off tommorow's potential astronauts with a long list of vegetables.

    • Re:summary=story (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      parent is insightful. the linked article provides little information. all that i could find is an article mentioning radishes, green onions, and lettuce [nasa.gov] as possible candidate species.

      A-Day
      • Re:summary=story (Score:4, Interesting)

        by gobbo (567674) <wrewrite @ g m a i l.com> on Sunday October 24, 2004 @01:43PM (#10614731) Journal
        Interesting to note in that story that they mention low-pressure growing environments to reduce structural stresses. If you've ever been up to super-high altitude places like the Andes or Himalayan valleys, you'll see some massive vegetables, because of the strong sun and carefully managed micro-climates. I wonder what the pressure threshold is for typical vegetables to thrive.
    • Re:summary=story (Score:5, Insightful)

      by demachina (71715) on Sunday October 24, 2004 @02:20PM (#10614897)
      An empty fluff piece is kind of a metaphor for NASA's manned space program these days. They spend lots of money on make work programs, research lots of things, many trivial like this, none of which seem to involve bending metal, putting humans into space or sending them back to the moon or on to mars. Its really turned in to a high tech welfare system and jobs program. They've become so obsessed with making space flight safe they won't fly until its safe. Since they can't make it safe they don't fly but they keep spending money just as they were and waste time and money on the ground like this.

      I really wish they'd just shut it down and give all the money to Burt Rutan in no strings attached grants.

      The Discover channel has been running a great multi part documentary on Burt's team, "Black Sky: The Race For Space". The thing that really impresses you is the fact they still have lots of emotion about their endeavors and are clearly a no nonsense, seat of the pants, group of engineers and pilots doing thing they believe in, and doing it on a shoestring.

      Burt has lots of CAD drawings and sketches for his concept of an entire private space program including orbital vehicles, space stations and vehicles to get out of LEO. He really reminds me a lot of Kelly Johnson the genius behind the Lockheed Skunk Works, the SR-71 etc.

      If he had a fraction of the money NASA is wasting year in year out on its manned space program, and not even launching anything, he could build a space program that would capture people's, especially young people's, imagination again like Apollo did.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 24, 2004 @12:36PM (#10614388)
    a good candidate for the mission. I guess travaling that far can be boring .
  • by shawnywany (664241) on Sunday October 24, 2004 @12:36PM (#10614392)
    Spam... Comes in a small can, and tastes great. As a good long-term food source, it's great--just ask me. The poor university student. :(
  • I wonder... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Pig Hogger (10379) <pig.hoggerNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Sunday October 24, 2004 @12:37PM (#10614394) Journal
    I wonder if someone will smuggle pot seeds onboard...
    • Re:I wonder... (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Firethorn (177587)
      If you believe the medical qualities they might just provide them. We already know that the stuff grows well hydroponically, and views on it are changing in the USA, so it might be medically legal by then.
      • Who cares about the laws of some puny earthbound government like the US. These guys are going to be in *space*, for crying out loud. Isn't that kind of like international waters?
        • If thats American ship, so it is under US jurisdiction. And IF they plan to return on US during their lifetime they probably, better stay legal. [Or hide things damn well, or become such a national hero that NASA keeps scandal hidden.]
    • lander door opens and astronaut steps out....faint sounds of Bob Marley playing....

      "that's one small ste...oh dude it's like so RED out here!! And the sky.. is like... totally pink man! Houston, I'm like, so tripping right now!"
    • I'm affraid seeds won't do much good with hydroponics. However, a good batch of high quality cuttings would certainly make space travel much more interesting :-)
  • Food Source (Score:5, Funny)

    by cyber_rigger (527103) on Sunday October 24, 2004 @12:41PM (#10614425) Homepage Journal
    Why can't we just eat at the Starbucks that will be there by the time we get there.
  • Efficient? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by MrDickey (653242)
    It seems to me that taking the lamps, dirt, and space needed for the plants to grow would be less efficient than simply filling the space with canned food. I suppose it depends on the time they are taking; I wonder how many growing seasons they will have on the way to mars.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      It seems to me that taking the lamps, dirt, and space needed for the plants to grow would be less efficient than simply filling the space with canned food.

      But if you don't eat your greens you won't get any pudding. And who would spend years in space without pudding?

      • They won't be taking dirt. It's too heavy and in an intensive situation like that, they'll be using hydroponics. The NASA article referenced up a little higher on the page shows some of the plants they're trying and talks about nutrient solutions - they're clearly hydroponic vegetables. Hmm... actually, running treated water through the vegetables might be a good way to do final filtration on water for the crew to reuse.

        The main problem with taking canned food is that it's limited. If you find out halfway
    • Re:Efficient? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Ohreally_factor (593551) on Sunday October 24, 2004 @12:56PM (#10614499) Journal
      First of all, I highly doubt they're going to use "dirt". Hydroponic growth medium of some sort I might imagine.

      Second of all, the plants serve a dual purpose: food and oxygen replenishment. Cans don't change carbon dioxide into oxygen. They can't.

      Third, space needed depends on the plant. Maybe they'll use algae, which is a plant.
      • Maybe they'll use algae, which is a plant.

        And it tastes oh so good!

        • Re:Efficient? (Score:3, Insightful)

          by gobbo (567674)
          Maybe they'll use algae, which is a plant.

          And it tastes oh so good!

          Well, it doesn't taste that bad, if you're eating spirulina [google.com], considering how damn good it is for you in the right dosages. Sounds sensible to me. I tease my significant other for drinking "pond scum" in her orange juice, but she doesn't mind the taste at all.

          • Re:Efficient? (Score:3, Informative)

            by Coryoth (254751)
            Well, it doesn't taste that bad, if you're eating spirulina, considering how damn good it is for you in the right dosages. Sounds sensible to me. I tease my significant other for drinking "pond scum" in her orange juice, but she doesn't mind the taste at all.

            Spirulina does actually taste rather unpleasant. That's why they mix it with orange huice instead of, say, water. Mixed with orange juice I agree, it's really not bad at all, but on its own it really is surprisingly unpleasant.

            Jedidiah.
            • "Spirulina does actually taste rather unpleasant."

              True. I think it could be worse (e.g. extremely bitter), since you can cover it up. The tradeoff of taste / value is worth it, though.

              Moral of the story? don't go eating pond scum without oranges.
    • Re:Efficient? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by tylernt (581794)
      "the lamps, dirt, and space needed for the plants to grow would be less efficient"

      I'm inclined to agree, for a short mission. Except, they don't need to stock enough soil/nutrients/water etc for 5 years, because they can use and re-use the water and uh, human waste, over and over again, resulting in a semi-closed loop. Depending on how closed the loop is and how long they're out, there is some point where this becomes more efficient. I guess they've done the math.
      • They need a system where the weight of stuff won't be too big, and still be able to handle unexpected delays in returning. For instance a extra year or so...
  • by ardustry (781848) * <ardustry-slashdot AT yahoo DOT com> on Sunday October 24, 2004 @12:49PM (#10614467) Homepage Journal
    ...fifty years from now, we find that the only plants that would grow on Mars are ragweed and poison ivy.
  • by spineboy (22918) on Sunday October 24, 2004 @12:59PM (#10614508) Journal
    It seems pretty obvious to me that they will need to do a several month long completely closed dry run. Plants can make some pretty funky compounds - they engage in chemical warfare with eachother - that's where we get the starting base compound for our chemotherapy drugs, and other medicines.

    Anyway, it'll be kind of a drag being locked up on earth for a few months in a small closed environment - but I wouldn't trust relying on plants any other way.

    • by RAMMS+EIN (578166) on Sunday October 24, 2004 @01:11PM (#10614556) Homepage Journal
      Actually, they've tried to do a closed system test run. The project was called Biosphere 2 [wikipedia.org] (Biosphere 1 being nature).

      From what I recall (the Wikipedia article doesn't seem to mention this), The project was either a great failure or a great success, depending on how you look at it. It was a great success, because life thrived in it. The failure was in the fact that the system wasn't balanced very well, and the lifeforms that thrived were the likes of cockcroaches; not the humans that were intended to do scientific experiments there.
      • by Richard_at_work (517087) <richardprice@gma[ ]com ['il.' in gap]> on Sunday October 24, 2004 @01:23PM (#10614616)
        Biosphere 2 was a technical failure. THey had to pump extra oxygen into the system after it was discovered that the extinction rate within the dome was a lot higher than expected. Something like 70% of all species put into the system to begin with died out within the life of the experiment.
        • And it showed how hard it is to design a system to work properly. I am surprised that we have not been doing more work on biospheres. I saw that they are finally throwing one up in siberia. Strikes me as one of the better ideas yet. Less sunlight. Much lower temperatures. Closer to mars.
          • Theres a NASA program going on at the moment with 12 crew, except this time they are relying on a lot less natural, and going more for mechanical, with a large hydroponics area for food and some oxygen. I think this approach is better for the journey rather than something like Biosphere 2 :)
        • Documented technical failures are scientific successes. Of course, I have no idea how well Biosphere 2 was run as a scientific experiment, but the fact that it failed could have provided loads of scientific information.

          --
          Evan "Difference between science and engineering"

        • Most of the reason. (Score:3, Interesting)

          by IBitOBear (410965)
          I was talking to someone who was in a position to know things about the Biosphere 2 project. (I forget who, but at the time I put a "valid information" mental bookmark on the conversation, how's *that* for a citation? 8-)

          The two major reasons for failure of the project were related to plant choice and layout. In short, they chose american-friendly plants and "arranged them attractively" for the press. They made little brookes and tiny farms. In short they tried to "make a little planet of happy foods".
      • by gobbo (567674)
        The failure was in the fact that the system wasn't balanced very well, and the lifeforms that thrived were the likes of cockcroaches; not the humans that were intended to do scientific experiments there.

        In a cup-is-half-full approach to semi-independent systems, you could say that what they had was not an excess of cockroaches but a shortage of chickens. I mean, why waste all those wonderful little packages of proteins and minerals? Turn them into eggs. Cockroaches in themselves can be useful for scavengi

  • by Dark Lord Seth (584963) on Sunday October 24, 2004 @01:14PM (#10614566) Journal
    • Palm tree: No palmtree-sized spaceships available yet. Adding 10 foot high skylight to craft inadvisable.
    • Marijuana: Used up before launch by ground crew, causing crew to riot.
    • Sugar cane: Last sugar rush of crewman Johnson cost us 3 million USD.
    • Juniper berries: Crewman Richards managed to build a distillery out of a first aid kit, never mind what he can do with a spaceship.
    • Experimental mold: Last batch got killed by the maid.
    • Experimental mold mk2: Last batch killed the maid.
    • Money trees: Waged war with Financing, lost the money trees.
    • "Marijuana: Used up before launch by ground crew, causing crew to riot."

      I would have gone with:

      Marijuana: Used up before launch by ground crew, resulting in apathy and disinterest site-wide at the Kennedy Space Center and caused NASA to push back the launch date.
  • by Lord_Dweomer (648696) on Sunday October 24, 2004 @01:30PM (#10614655) Homepage
    Would this be a good opportunity to use genetically modified plants? Perhaps ones that produce food quicker, or that live longer or that eat up more C02 and produce more 02?

    • by Anonymous Coward
      Why does everyone expect thet GE can solve everything? I myself graduated in plantbiotechnology this year and we discussed some of these things in class.

      Quicker production of food: You would need plants with a larger leaf-index for this to happen. As "quicker" and "larger" are hard to quantify in organisms, it's even harder to know which genes would be involved in the process. Conventional breeding is atm still the best way to get better producing plants, but that takes decades. Perhaps over a few decades
      • Why does everyone expect thet GE can solve everything?

        It's neato and nerdly.

        Meanwhile, the world is full of nutritious useful plant species that are not suited to large-scale industrial ag or being promoted as a commodity, so they fall off the proverbial table and are ignored in discussions like this.

        People often think there are a dozen varieties of potato because that's what is mass-marketed; when the Incas were invaded, they cultivated thousands of varieties, and thousands more were bred since then, b

  • I remember "they" used to sell small glass balls (4 or 6 inches?) that contained a self-sufficient ecology. This was in the 80's IIRC.

    I think they were mostly water, with some sort of green water-plant, and tiny shrimp or some such, for a "complete" plant-animal symbiotic environment.

    Anyhow, they were supposed to cycle "forever?" in their closed, balanced system. Assuming you gave it enought sunlight, but didn't over-cook it, and of course assuming it didn't get knocked to the floor.

    Did anyone have (s

  • by airship (242862) on Sunday October 24, 2004 @01:44PM (#10614733) Homepage
    Why not just fill a capsule with seeds from every plant on earth and have it crash into Mars about 20 years before we go there? Anything that can grow, will grow, and we'll find out what works without a bunch of expensive and potentially futile research. Like they say in Jurassic Park, "Nature will find a way". :)

  • by shubert1966 (739403) on Sunday October 24, 2004 @02:23PM (#10614921) Journal
    The list posted above cannot possibly be correct. Maybe they should get Martha Stewart on this one. She's good with recipes and used to living in confined spaces.
  • by targo (409974) <targo_t@hotmail. c o m> on Sunday October 24, 2004 @02:27PM (#10614942) Homepage
    Would anybody know if there are any plants here on Earth that could survive on Mars itself? Not in some closed dome but in the actual atmosphere?
    If we ever want to have successful Mars colonization then we also have to perform some terrafroming there; I can't imagine too many people wanting to live their whole lives in a cramped, closed environment. Creating some oxygen in the atmosphere would probably be essential for such an endeavour but would it be possible with anything that we've got today?
    • The atmosphere/temp and sun conditions are probably within the range of some species, but the martian soil is pretty deadly stuff, you'd probably need some GM bacteria to deal with that.
    • by heli0 (659560) on Sunday October 24, 2004 @05:24PM (#10615838)
      http://archives.cnn.com/2001/TECH/space/06/04/mars .jellyplants/ [cnn.com]

      Terrestrial scientists planning to sprout genetically altered weeds on Mars hope to take part in a $300 million mission to the red planet that could pave the way for human colonization.


      "It will be a symbolic step of life from Earth, leaving Earth, and growing somewhere else," said Chris McKay, a NASA scientist involved in Mars missions.

      "I have no doubt that we can get plants to survive on Mars," said Rob Ferl, a University of Florida scientist who is trying to reserve a spot for the experiment on the proposed 2007 mission.

      A common weed along roadsides and trails, the Arabidopsis plant was selected for the project because of its short life cycle, about 5 weeks, its diminutive size, about 7 inches, and because its entire genetic structure has been mapped and sequenced.

      If the lowly weed succeeds in its lofty task, the researchers hope it sparks more scientific interest in the possibility of "terraforming" Mars, or engineering its ecosystems to make them more suitable for Earth life.

      Such tinkering would likely be required to produce oxygen, food and water for human transplants, as the cost of sending such essentials from Earth would be prohibitive.

      "I have no doubt what we can get plants to survive on Mars. When we do, we will have shown that Earth-evolved life is capable of thriving in distant worlds, and we will have set the stage for human colonization," Ferl said.
  • actually... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by zogger (617870) on Sunday October 24, 2004 @02:34PM (#10614970) Homepage Journal
    ...some of the simpler plants like algae (blue green) and chlorella and some of the yeasts are a good choice. Rapid growth cycles, easy to grow, extremely nutritious and because they come in tiny single cell size they are highly digestible. Probably the best bet for a closed cycle system, to get the most calories for the effort.

    Too add to the list down below, I'll throw in a few I know are very nutritious and fast growers,and also able to take some extreme environmental conditions, efficient in other words

    lambs quarters

    purslane

    kale

    bunching onions

    along the same lines, chives

    sweet clover

    There's some other fast growers and tougher plant candidates but they are nastier tasting, like some of the lichens. If they had enough light and a salt water/mineral mix tank, dulse might be a good choice as well.

    Left out things that would be too hard to grow in an enclosed small place, there's quite a few really. In normal cultured gardening, there are just hundreds of candidates probably, it really *is* a variable that would be determined on space available and how much water is available, light available, and that is about it. Modern vegetables are pretty good at being *food*, most of them have been very successfully bred over the generations to be fast growers, etc, they just need a *lot* of water and root and foliar space, and a lot of them are not edible until they achieve a large size, or are not practical because of length of time for seed to seed. I would assume that is what is the big drawback to what the selections might be. For example, corn is tasty, but only medium nutritious, takes a huge amount of resources and space, and even the fastest corn is still weighing in at about two months growing time. Off the list. The radishes though, heck ya, about perfect. I think their primary criteria would have to be a fast generational cycle and having most of the plant be edible. And they could always do just sprouts, dried grains and seeds are fairly compact and already being mostly dehydrated they are efficient to launch weight wise, and after sprouting they have activated enzymes which make them a lot more nutritous than the mature plant. It's a small window with sprouts, usually about until they get their first real leaves, as opposed to the bud leaves.

    Personally, I think they should make an executive decision that YES INDEEDY (that's my official vote anyway) we as humans are going to colonise mars, and that will entail dragging our crops with us, so they should just go ahead and start terraforming now by introducing the simpler plants in the hopes they might adapt. I know that is controversial, but that's the only thing rational if you are serious about colonization at any time in the future. No sense wasting time then if you choose "yes". Robot probes could be the advanced gardeners, even if all they did was set up greenhouses and get a few of the simpler crops up and growing before the humans showed up.

    When previous historical explorers traveled, they took the means to self perpetuate their food supply, they took seeds and livestock with them. They didn't know what would be "out there" so they couldn't take a chance on a very long and hazardous journey and then get stuck with no food eventually. they did the only thing logical at the time, they traveled with a "farm in a box". If they had had the ability to send that "farm in a box" stuff FIRST, ahead of their voyages,they would have done so. We can do that now with the next stage of human exploration, so, IMO, we probably should.

    Yes, aware of the risks of "contamination". I don't consider it contamination, I consider it rational cultivation. I don't want Mars and exploration to be limited to a few academic hands off pursuits,look but no touch action in other words, I want it eventually open for joe human to go there and live if he chooses to. Open source colonization, not closed source propietary.

    That will obviously mean then that we will be haulin
    • And they could always do just sprouts, dried grains and seeds are fairly compact and already being mostly dehydrated they are efficient to launch weight wise, and after sprouting they have activated enzymes which make them a lot more nutritous than the mature plant. It's a small window with sprouts, usually about until they get their first real leaves, as opposed to the bud leaves.

      I had a personal experiment relating to this: a cross-continent bicycle tour. Since 5 meals a day wasn't really enough, we sup

  • by racerx509 (204322) on Sunday October 24, 2004 @02:45PM (#10615017) Homepage
    I remember a few years back, there was a comment on growing algae in space. While some forms of algae are edible ,I would hardly think anyone would want to consume it. However, it is known that growing algae in a vacuum can produce hydrogen. Growing other species of algae within a pressurized environment can produce oxygen. What would be excellent is if the astronauts could not only "grow" their food supply and life support, but also "grow" their fuel.
    http://www.21stcenturyradio.com/NP02-24-200 0c.html
  • .. thinking of 'bring the garden along' ... and start thinking of improving their 'dry food'-method more to a 'all energy needed for a person for a day in a pill-size capsule, or smaller' basis - for these initial triess toward Mars.

    heck, I even recall there was a slashdot article about the military researching a 'patch' that could sustain a soldier for a week (IIRC) or so.

    Think of it - plants aren't compact enough, compared to a 'patch' / 'pill' ... and seems like a waste of space to launch into space.

    • Even though the article was lacking in what anyone could consider detail, hell I would even hesitate to call it an article, one of the points in this research is for the recycling of oxygen and water, its not just about food.

      Plants do an incredible job of purifying and recycling both air and water, and because of the growth rate and adaptability of many plants I think their problem will actually be in stemming the tide of mutation. Life evolves to fill whichever niche it can. And plants do it very very ra
  • "By far not all of them are suitable for space expedition."

    I have a vision of a potted tomato plant strapped to the centrifuge chair...

Numeric stability is probably not all that important when you're guessing.

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