Space Horticulture

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Studies of plants and their responses to gravity and the space environment have concentrated on three main themes. The first is space horticulture, the study of how to grow plants successfully in space, either for experimental purposes or for human consumption. The second is the necessity of gravity, or whether there is any facet of a plant's growth, development, and metabolism that is impaired if there is no gravity. Finally, their response to the direction of gravity or a gravity vector, how do plants respond specifically and if they alter their pattern of growth and development.

The fourth area of research which Donna is helping to pioneer is the therapeutic benefit of space horticulture. Anecdotes and excerpts from the Astronaut's comments, diaries and reports, indicate that the plant experiments where eagerly looked forward to as part of their routine work activities.

The images here reflect the vision that Donna has had since highschool when she received an Award of Merit from NASA on the design of an environmental habitat which included edible plant material and the ergonomic design of a space capsule to include plants. The year was 1968.

Donna does research and write about space horticulture and several abstracts of her papers are found in the articles section of the website. She is not the only one with this vision however, and it has gone beyond landing on the moon, it is now forecasting for landing on Mars after a 2 year flight.

From: Keith Cowing, June 2, 2002, SpaceRef - Earth on Mars: Greenhouses on the Red Planet
In space, the more material you discard, the more you have to bring with you. The longer the trip, the more Herculean the logistics requirements become - to say nothing of the size of the rockets required. Human missions to Mars will most certainly have two main design characteristics: some sort of fuel generation on Mars - often referred to as "In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) and a closed life support system that includes plants and microorganisms (bioregenerative). The most likely way to grow plants on Mars? A greenhouse.

Greenhouses isolate plants from adverse conditions outside while providing optimal growing conditions inside. Given the harsh conditions outside on the surface of Mars, this will be quite a challenge. Many reknown scientists and engineers are already working on the problems.

NASA artist's concept from the
mid-1980s of a Mars base equipped
with greenhouses
NASA artist's concept from the mid-1980s of a Mars base equipped with greenhouses
Design specs for a Martian greenhouse
Building a functional greenhouse on Mars should be possible. However, significant attention will need to be paid to the rather extreme - even hostile conditions that exist in comparison to what greenhouse designers face on Earth. Mars' orbit is more elliptical than Earth's. As such, the intensity of sunlight it gets ranges from 52% down to 37% of the irradiance you'd get just if you were just outside Earth's atmosphere(before the atmosphere dampens it).
Given that Mars normally has clear skies (except for the occasional dust storm) the net amount of light available to plants on Mars may well be better - and more reliable - than available in the most optimal agricultural regions on Earth. A close approximation of Mars light levels is a greenhouse on Earth whose outside is in need of a good cleaningEarth and Mars have nearly identical axial inclinations with respect to the sun (23.5 Vs 25 degrees) and days of almost identical length (24.0 Vs 24.7 hours) such that plants used to seasonal and daily light cycles will have little problem adapting to Mars.

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