In The Martian movie, Matt Damon's character faced the possibility of starving to death on Mars because he does not have enough food to last until the next possible human visitation. Fortunately, he was a botanist and eventually found a way to grow potatoes on the Martian surface.
Although the idea of space farming may seem like part of a movie plot, Bruce Bugbee, from Utah State University, says it is now happening.
Bugbee has been working with NASA over the last decade to grow plants in space, a crucial element for survival in humanity's quest to visit and possibly colonize extraterrestrial worlds such as the Red Planet.
Bugbee said that certain plants can grow under light-emitting diodes (LEDs). In one of their research chambers, Bugbee showed the possibility of growing radish and lettuce plants in soil-less media. The crops were watered with hydroponic solution via drip irrigation.
Bugbee's research already saw fruition. In August, NASA said that six astronauts at the ISS became the first people to eat food that were grown in space. The crops, however, were not the first to be grown at the orbiting lab since NASA and other agencies have already experimented with plants in space. The results though were often sent to Earth to be examined instead of being eaten by astronauts.
Although plants have been successfully grown in low-Earth orbit, experts acknowledge that the harsh conditions on Mars would pose challenges.
Bugbee said that sophisticated technology is crucial for crop plants to thrive on the Red Planet. His process for growing crops, however, would forego the need for martian dirt and feces as it involves hydroponics and recycled water.
"As long as we grow our food in a closed system, we will have ample clean water -- no high-tech filtering systems are necessary," Bugbee said. "With the reports of Martian salt water this week, we can start a biological life support system by filtering the salt out of the water that is already there."
Bugbee said that with optimal environmental condition and concentrated sunlight, it would be possible for one person to grow all his food in a 25 square meter area, or about the size of a large living room. Bugbee says they are already working on a solution for the natural lighting issues.
"What we are working on right now is big, reflective mirrors with lenses that concentrate sunlight and bring it inside with fiber optics," Bugbee said.