one of many Anticipated challenges In future manned missions to other worlds is the ability to grow food for crew consumption. And in the case of Mars, the radiation there is much greater than that on Earth. Is it possible to preserve greenhouses on the red planet to grow vegetables? Answer: maybe. Research by Wageningen University & Research and the Reactor Institute Delft (RID) reveals that cosmic radiation on Mars is detrimental to plant growth, and like us humans, they also need some protection to survive.
Nynche Tack, one of the researchers on the study, used data on Martian radiation obtained by Curiosity RoverTaking into account these conditions for growing watercress and rye here on Earth. He explains that since the radiation on Mars is much greater than the radiation on the surface of our planet – about 17 times – the experiment was conducted under strict safety conditions. “We conducted the experiment in a private ‘managed castle’ and in a hood,” Tack adds. In addition, the researcher notes the effects of radiation that are quickly perceived in plants, such as the appearance of brown leaves and reduced growth.
The quality of the experiment’s crop was significantly inferior to that of the radiation-protected control plants – which came as no surprise to the researchers. “I’ve always expected radiation to have a negative effect on plant growth as well, but this has never been well investigated, so we needed to confirm this prediction,” explains Wiger Walmink, the study’s lead author.
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At the Valve Castle, radiation was emitted from five cobalt-60 sources, mounted high above the plants, to create a flat radiation field similar to that of Mars. Over the course of 28 days, the plants were irradiated and then harvested. The researchers revealed that one of them received a lower dose of radiation to evaluate the different outcomes. “We only used gamma radiation, but on Mars, cosmic radiation consists of alpha, beta and ultraviolet rays, so there are still differences, but the dose was about the same as that of Mars,” they add.
With negative results proving that radiation really harms the growth of plants, Wamelink says it is necessary to think of ways to protect them from the strong Martian radiation, in order to make their cultivation viable. An alternative, then, would be to grow them in underground greenhouses, where they will be completely protected from surface hazards. “It’s a bigger challenge than growing plants in a rooftop greenhouse, but it also makes life easier because we can grow plants in fully controlled conditions by applying LED light,” he points out.
Therefore, the next stage of the study will be carried out in a Cold War-era underground bunker located in Arnhem, the Netherlands – i.e. a fully controlled environment. The team next hopes to find out if underground greenhouses will be the answer to the problem of growing food on the Red Planet — at least in this similar and simulated environment here on Earth. Who knows, in the near future, an experiment of this kind will not be conducted there on Mars, right?
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