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How to grow greens on a Red Planet

GLOBE AND MAIL

The Mars garden project takes off, with Canadian researchers at the helm. Anne McIlroy reports

ANNE MCILROY

January 26, 2008

The Russians want to grow potatoes, the French are keen on garlic and the Japanese want rice. If astronauts ever make it to Mars, they will need to produce their own food and Canadian researchers have built a prototype of a greenhouse that they say should be able to satisfy the culinary cravings of visitors to the Red Planet - no matter what their country of origin.

The growth chamber is a six-metre-long, stainless-steel structure that looks like a tunnel. In a few weeks, it will be ready to ship to the European Space Agency for testing as part of a new, multi-unit life-support system for either a mission to Mars or a lunar base.

To keep the greenhouse atmosphere from being contaminated, planting and harvesting would be done using a set of gloves built into an airlock, says Mike Dixon, the University of Guelph plant physiologist who heads what is known as the Martian garden project. A conveyer belt moves the plants around, and watering and lighting systems keep them growing.

"It is not rocket science to grow vegetables in a box," Dr. Dixon says. The tricky part is growing enough strawberries, lettuce, wheat, soybeans, dwarf apples, carrots, radishes, beats, green onions and other crops to keep a crew from starving.

The prototype chambers are relatively small - it would take three of them just to produce enough food to meet only 20 per cent of the daily caloric requirements of a single astronaut.

Growing plenty of food in a small space will be essential on Mars, so Dr. Dixon and his colleagues are working on ways to improve the yield - trying, for example, to genetically engineer plants that require less light.

But the greenhouse is about more than food production. The plants will help to manage the atmosphere of the crew cabin, putting oxygen in and taking carbon dioxide out. As well, the greenhouse will provide drinking water because the moisture the plants release into the atmosphere can be condensed and collected.

Over the next few years, Dr. Dixon says, the Europeans will work on ways to link the greenhouse to the crew cabin and other units. Animals such as dwarf pigs may be used to test the system.

To be economical, the atmospheric pressure in the greenhouse will have to be much lower than in the crew cabin and Dr. Dixon and his colleagues are also testing plants to find which ones can grow in a low-pressure environment.

Any greenhouse that eventually goes to Mars will have to be much lighter than this first prototype and probably inflatable, says Dr. Dixon, who has spent 20 years figuring out how plants can be used in space to provide food, clean air and water.

"With an inflatable system, you can conceive of having your food-production and life-support systems all rolled up in a ball. You arrive on Mars, unroll this thing, inflate it to the required pressure and start growing plants. Now obviously it is not as easy as that."

There will be plenty of time to work out the wrinkles.

President George W. Bush has committed the United States to a trip to Mars, which is 56 million to 400 million kilometres from Earth, depending on its orbit. But a manned mission is probably three decades away.

The Canadian greenhouse is part of a life-support system being developed by the Europeans. So far, the garden project research has cost roughly $800,000, which has come from a variety of government sources, including the Canadian Space Agency. A team of 50 scientists, engineers and graduate students have been involved in the project, which began a year ago.

"Canada has taken a leadership role in this particular field of space science. It is our next Canadarm," Dr. Dixon says.

Alain Berinstain, director of planetary exploration and space astronomy for the Canadian Space Agency, says Canada - thanks to the University of Guelph - is uniquely positioned to build Martian greenhouses. But the research is still at an early stage, he says, and it is too soon for any decision on what Canada will contribute to a future mission to Mars.

The research could also result in significant benefits for Earth.

If Dr. Dixon and his colleagues succeed in developing plants that require significantly less light, it could revolutionize greenhouse agriculture, making it less expensive, and more feasible, especially for northern communities.

Their work on using plants to filter air has led to one spinoff company, Air Quality Solutions Ltd. in Guelph, which sells systems to improve indoor-air quality.

Although a mission to Mars is decades away, the debate has already begun over what is on the menu for astronauts once they get there. Each national space agency has its own list of food it wants grown, Dr. Dixon says.

"There are lots of potatoes in the Russian [list], garlic in the French, rice in the Japanese. Eventually they all will be amalgamated into a culturally, ethnically and psychologically acceptable menu."

The international committee meets periodically to discuss the possibilities. Dr. Dixon has proposed roses, because flowering plants would give astronauts a psychological boost. But the idea was rejected by the committee chair because roses don't make for good eating. Also rejected was Dr. Dixon's pitch for barley - along with his suggestion that astronauts on Mars might want to make their own Scotch.

Anne McIlroy is The Globe and Mail's science reporter.

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