Food on Mars

Settlers on Mars will have needs, but the most obvious ones are breathing and eating, and both of these are likely to involve plants. Anyone thinking of going to Mars should think about these, and if you look at science fiction the answers vary. Most simply assume everything is taken care of, which is fair enough for a story. Then there is the occasional story with slightly more detail. Andy Weir’s “The Martian” is simple. He grows potatoes. Living on such a diet would be a little spartan, but his hero had no option, being essentially a Robinson Crusoe without a Man Friday. The oxygen seemed to be a given. The potatoes were grown in what seemed to be a pressurised plastic tent and to get water, he catalytically decomposed hydrazine to make hydrogen and then he burnt that. A plastic tent would not work. The UV radiation would first make the tent opaque so the necessary light would not get in very well, then the plastic would degrade. As for making water, burning hydrazine as it was is sufficient, but better still, would they not put their base where there was ice?

I also have a novel (“Red Gold”) where a settlement tries to get started. Its premise is there is a main settlement with fusion reactors and hence have the energy to make anything, but the main hero is “off on his own” and has to make do with less, but can bring things from the main settlement. He builds giant “glass houses” made with layers of zinc-rich glass that shield the inside from UV radiation. Stellar plasma ejections are diverted by a superconducting magnet at the L1 position between Mars and the sun (proposed years before NASA suggested it) and the hero lives in a cave. That would work well for everything except cosmic radiation, but is that going to be that bad? Initially everyone lives on hydroponically grown microalgae, but the domes permit ordinary crops. The plants grow in treated soil, but as another option a roof is put over a minor crater and water provided (with solar heating from space) in which macroalgae grow and marine microalgae, as well as fish and other species, like prawns. The atmosphere is nitrogen, separated from the Martian atmosphere, and some carbon dioxide, and the plants make oxygen. (There would have to be some oxygen to get started, but plants on Earth grew without oxygen initially.)

Since then there have been other quite dramatic proposals from more official sources that assume a lot of automation to begin with. One of the proposals involves constructing huge greenhouses by covering a crater or valley. (Hey, I suggested that!) but the roof is flat and made of plastic, the plastic being made from polyethylene 2,5-furandicarboxylate, a polyester made from carbohydrates grown by the plants. This is used as a bonding agent to make a concrete from Martian rock. (In my novel, I explained why a cement is very necessary, but there are limited uses.) The big greenhouse model has some limitations. In this, the roof is flat, and in essentially two layers, and in between are vertical stacks of algae growing in water. The extra value here is that water filters out the effect of cosmic rays, although you need several meters of it. Now we have a problem. The idea is that underneath this there is a huge habitat, and for every cubic meter of water, we have one tonne mass, and on Mars, about 0.4 tonne of force on the lower flat deck. If this bottom deck is the opaque concrete, then something bound by plastic adhesion will slip. (Our concrete on bridges is only inorganic, and the binding is chemical, not physical, and further there is steel reinforcing.) Below this there would need to be many weight-bearing pillars. And there would need to be light generation between the decks (to get the algae to grow) and down below. Nuclear power would make this easy. Food can be grown as algae in between decks, or in the ground down below.

As I see it, construction of this would take quite an effort and a huge amount of materials. The concept is the plants could be grown to make the cement to make the habitat, but hold on, where are the initial plants going to grow, and who/what does all the chemical processing? The plan is to have that in place from robots before anyone gets there but I think that is greatly overambitious. In “Red Gold” I had the glass made from regolith processed with the fusion energy. The advantage of glass over this new suggestion is weight; even on Mars with its lower gravity millions of tonnes remains a serious weight. The first people there will have to live somewhat more simply.

Another plan that I have seen involves finding a frozen lake in a crater, and excavating an “under-ice” habitat. No shortage of water, or screening from cosmic rays, but a problem as I see it is said ice will melt from the heat, erode the bottom of the sheet, and eventually it will collapse. Undesirable, that is.

All of these “official” options use artificial lighting. Assuming a nuclear reactor, that is not a problem in itself, although it would be for the settlement under the ice because heat control would be a problem. However, there is more to getting light than generating energy. What gives off the light, and what happens when its lifetime expires? Do you have to have a huge number of spares? Can they be made on Mars?

There is also the problem with heat. In my novel I solved this with mirrors in space focussing more sunlight on selected spots, and of course this provides light to help plants grow, but if you are going to heat from fission power a whole lot more electrical equipment is needed. Many more things to go wrong, and when it could take two years to get a replacement delivered, complicated is what you do not want. It is not going to be that easy.

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