Can we grow things on Mars?

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Oct 18, 2016, 6:08 PM EDT (Updated)

It’s a future we’ve long dreamed of: colonizing other planets. The first such planet humans will probably want to land on will be Mars, so scientists are now considering how to best prepare the red planet for human colonization. If humans are going to live on the surface of other planets, they’re going to need a steady supply of food (among other things). Sending regular supply ships would be costly and inefficient, so now scientists are seriously considering how we might grow food on the surface of Mars by creating an ecosystem that can sustain plant life.

The Mars Ecopoiesis Test Bed project has received $100,000 for further research through NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts office. The idea is to create a robotically controlled ecosystem on the moon that simulates Mars’ surface conditions. Eventually, the project will go on to use a probe-like device that will be shot into the surface of Mars. This device will be completely sealed from contamination and release bacteria that can survive in extreme conditions. The device will monitor these organisms and then send that data to a relay satellite. Eventually, the hope is that these organisms do their thing and help make soil, the first step in creating an environment suitable for plants (and eventually for humans).

The Mars Ecopoiesis Test Bed could serve as the first step in actually terraforming Mars to make it more suitable for human life. However, even if the experiment makes it to Mars, it could take at least 1,000 years to produce results capable of changing the planet enough to sustain human life. Even the project itself will take time: The scientific team has outlined a series of goals that will keep it busy for the next 100 years.

Considering we’ll probably be sending human missions to Mars relatively soon, though, perhaps by then we’ll have figured out a faster way to get there. In the meantime, other scientists are exploring other ways of transforming the surface of Mars to make it more habitable for us, including using asteroid dirt for testing how plants grow in alien soil.