Can Humans Build a Base Station on Mars? The Possibilities of Growing Plants and Changing Martian Atmosphere

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Can Humans Get to and Survie on Mars?

Since early astronomers found a tiny red speck in the night sky and named it Mars (for the god of war) people have envisioned what such a little red planet might be like. From Edgar Rice Burroughs to Carl Sagan (who was a Burroughs fan) both writers and scientists have spent lifetimes speculating on what might inhabit the red planet. Thanks to NASA and a series of probes, orbiters and landers, we have a developing picture of Mars that seems both inhospitable and inviting at the same time. Could human life exist on Mars? Has life existed in the past? Will it in the future? Will a Martian civilization someday exist and have its roots on Earth?

The USA Space Program has already proven that it can reach other worlds. We went to the moon in July of 1969 and made a few further trips afterwards. It can be done. While we are planning future moon landings, there is speculation that a Mars landing should be next. Perhaps launched from a moon base to negate Earth’s gravity and make the take-off easier on both the space craft and its inhabitants. Getting to Mars would be a long journey and supplies would run out before the travelers could return. Since our astronauts are not considered expendable, they would have to be able to survive once they reach Mars.

Growing Plants in Martian Soil

Since the air is not what we are used to, any human visitors to Mars would probably have to live for long periods in their landing craft, returning to the orbiter to replenish oxygen, food and water supplies on an almost daily basis. The initial landing site, or base, would take some time to build and the orbiter would provide safe haven for the astronauts as they begin their stay on Mars. But what of plant life? Seeds have already been sent into space to be germinated and the experiment was successful. It can be done! With the right equipment, the Martian water could be made useable for both humans and plants. As the water works and greenhouses are constructed, the hydroponic gardening could begin aboard the orbiter. Sturdy greenhouses to protect the crops from ultra violet rays and Martian weather fronts might take some time to build. During the building, the seeds would grow and be seedlings when first placed into the greenhouse.

Discovery Channel* seems to think that asparagus would be a good crop for the Martian soil, considering its levels of alkalinity. The soil is far less acidic than was originally expected according to the BBC. Other crops that require alkaline soil might also do quite well (the astronauts would get really tired of a straight asparagus diet!). Some of the soil samples appear to contain perchlorate, which is highly oxidizing, while other samples don’t show it. So the astronauts on Mars would have a supply of food and water, depending either on the location of their planting or the additives they bring to improve the Martian soil.

The MECA (the Microscopy, Electrochemical and Conductivity Analyzer) from the Phoenix spacecraft, has found significant amounts of perchlorate in the Martian soil. This could be a huge problem for farming. Asparagus, beans, broccoli and other vegetables that should do well in the elevated alkaline soil would not survive being planted if perchlorate is present. This may or may not be a problem, because as the Earth has some areas that are better for growing one crop and areas that are better for another (due to their chemical make-up), Mars could well be the same. It is possible to use additives and fertilizers to counteract some harmful elements and NASA has yet to determine how much the perchlorate would actually affect a farming operation.

Changing the Atmosphere

The planetary atmosphere is a somewhat different story, of course. Plant life that grows in Earth’s sub-arctic regions might survive on Mars if there was a ground water source to keep them alive. More plants, more oxygen. It could take a century to create a breathable atmosphere on Mars, but it could be done. The key to a successful colonizing of Mars is a space station being built there, followed by a base on the surface. It would take some adjusting for the astronauts when they arrive on Mars! The Earth has blue skies during the day and pink, yellow and red sunrises and sunsets. On Mars it would be just the opposite! Iron particles in the air make the daytime sky more of a red shade as the sunlight reflects off the iron particles. In the early morning and evening, however, with less reflecting light, the sky would take on a bluer shade.

Building a Base Station Little by Little

Technological advances will enable us to construct a small station and greenhouse within fifty years. Each succeeding mission would be able to bring new supplies and seed, making it possible to turn Mars into a life sustaining planet by the mid-22 century. As plant life thrives and multiplies, the greenhouses and “domes” would no longer be necessary. Water would begin to form and fall in larger “rainstorms” than Mars now sees. As the planet warms and oxygen increases, Martian water would develop into rivers and lakes. From one small station, an entire human colony could develop!

Informational resources:

Discovery Channel, Building crops to grow in space.