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Southampton University Students Aim to Grow Lettuce on Mars

Southampton University Students Aim to Grow Lettuce on Mars

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – Boldly going where no produce has gone before, lettuce may very well be the first thing grown on Mars.

Students from the University of Southampton Spaceflight Society are aiming to grow lettuce on the red planet. If successful, this would be the first thing ever grown there. It would not, however, be the first veggie grown in space. Interestingly enough, lettuce is currently being grown on the ISS as part of the NASA VEGGIE project.

In July, MarsOne, a not-for-profit foundation that hopes to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2026, kicked off a competition for a payload space on the MarsOne lander that will be launched in 2018.

The students submitted their proposal for #LettuceOnMars and are now in the final round of 10. The winner will be named by popular vote.

Members from the University of Southampton Spaceflight Society

The team says that they chose lettuce because it has already been successfully grown in closed environments on Earth and in orbit. It is also edible, uses space efficiently and can be transported to Mars as a durable seed that only takes a month to grow to full size.  

On the #LettuceOnMars website, the team lays out its mission, saying, “Our objective is to demonstrate the ability to grow small plants with gases obtained from the Martian atmosphere, with a minimum of material imported from Earth. Proving that plant life can thrive in the controlled greenhouse environment and that the resources within can be appropriately managed is an important step towards demonstrating that a human colony will also be able to survive.”

Here is the sequence of events for growing the lettuce as laid out by the team:

  • Cruise: During cruise the payload will be powered down and inactive. The lettuce seeds will be frozen. The journey will take around 7 months.
  • Landing: When it has landed, heaters surrounding the growth chamber will maintain a temperature of 21-24°C. Mars has a temperature of -63ºC and pressure one hundredth of Earth's.
  • Setup: Carbon Dioxide will be heated and pressurised from the Martian atmosphere. Oxygen will be produced by electrolysis of water brought from Earth. Some water with dissolved nutrients will be vaporised in the growth chamber.
  • Lettuce Growth: These conditions will start seed germination. Light from both the sun and LEDs in the top of the greenhouse will enable photosynthesis. Throughout their growth sensors will transmit regular telemetry back to Earth. In addition, photographs taken by the camera located inside the growth chamber will be used to provide a visual record of the growing lettuce.
  • Mission Success: The lettuces will take approximately 4 weeks to grow to full size. Photographs taken by the camera inside the growth chamber will be transmitted back every day along with sensor data.
  • Termination: Upon completion of the mission and following a pre-determined signal, the heaters will be activated at higher power to exterminate all life in the payload, preventing any possible contamination risk.

I was initially confused why the team would kill the lettuce at the end of the trial. The team clarifies this on their website saying that they intend to destroy the life at the end of the experiment as a precautionary measure to prevent the possibility of any release of biological materials on Mars.

The external structure of the greenhouse itself will be made of aluminum, and the transparent sections will be made of polycarbonate. The team chose the aluminum because of its strength and lightweight quality and the polycarbonate for its durability and optical properties.

The MarsOne 2018 lander will land on the northern plains of Mars, between 40 and 50 degrees latitude in what is believed to have been an ocean in the distant past. The color relief map indicated possible landing positions outlined in yellow, and dots indicate US lander sites.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University

You can learn much more about the proposal and vote for it at the #LettuceOnMars website. I hope they win. It would be exciting to witness the first life on Mars.