Bringing the comforts of home into space.
NASA scientists at the Kennedy Space center, along with researchers at the University of Arizona have designed an inflatable greenhouse to help sustain life on Mars. The Prototype Lunar/Mars Greenhouse project will use a “bioregenerative life support system”, which imitates Earth’s environment in order to grow plants without exposure to the harsh conditions on Mars.
The greenhouses will function on a closed-loop system that is integrated with the astronaut’s life support systems. Just getting to Mars can take 150-300 days, which causes issues with food supply and storage. The greenhouses will enable astronauts to access fresh, life-sustaining food all year round.
The 18-foot-long, 8-foot-wide structures are meant to be buried below the Martian soil, in order to provide protection from solar radiation, extreme dust storms and strong winds. Without sunlight exposure, the researchers tested plant growth with LED lights or solar light, which can be captured and beamed underground with fiber optic bundles.
Since we have yet to discover water on Mars, the plants would be grown with water transported from Earth. The run-off will be collected and reused. Temperatures on Mars average around -80 degrees F, but near the equator it can be up to a comfortable 70 degrees F. Sometimes it snows on Mars, and even the snowflakes are made of carbon dioxide, instead of water.
The greenhouse plants will serve another important purpose— producing oxygen. The atmosphere of Mars is made up of 95.32 percent carbon dioxide and only 0.13 percent oxygen, therefore the plants will be used to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen. The system can also use astronauts’ exhalations of carbon dioxide.
Conditions on the moon may be a bit more hospitable. There is water on the moon, but only molecules that rubbed off after the impact of a comet. The lunar water could only avoid evaporation at the poles, where it has accumulated in frozen craters. Some research suggests that water may have been absorbed all over the moon’s surface. It only takes astronauts 1-3 days to make the trip from Earth to the Moon.
NASA plans to design various sizes and types of greenhouses according to the plants they deem suitable for the location. They are also creating algorithms to simulate testing greenhouses in different atmospheric conditions.