NASA May Grow Plants on Mars in Miniature Greenhouse
Can plants grow in the harsh environment of the red planet? We might find out, as NASA is expected to announce within the next few days whether they will carry out plans to bring a one-liter greenhouse to Mars.
If the plans are approved, the next Mars rover will bring a one-liter cube of carbon dioxide filled with 250 Arabidopsis (a plant that's closely related to mustard) seeds on its next mission. After the rover lands, the seeds would be soaked with water and have their temperatures regulated with heaters and LEDs. If the plants grow and thrive, they would be the first Earthlings to live out their lives on a foreign planet, and NASA scientists would interpret the results as an indicator that human colonization of Mars is possible.
Most of the previous research about plants in space has focused on plant growth on spaceships; a student at the Royal College of Art recently invented the first synthetic biological leaf which may be more likely to survive in space than naturally occurring plants, which don't fare well in zero gravity. Studies have shown that they are unable to effectively orient their roots without gravity guiding them, and a recent study found that plants grown on spaceships have twice the mutations of terrestrial plants. But Mars has approximately one-sixth of the Earth's gravity, and NASA scientists believe it is worth exploring whether plants in low gravity will fare better than plants in zero gravity. "Plants don't like zero gravity. Humans don't like zero gravity. Not even cockroaches like zero gravity," said NASA senior scientist Chris McKay. "But we have no idea if the same is true for low gravity."
Counterintuitively, the greatest logistical problem for this experiment has nothing to do with its extraterrestrial location. According to Heather Smith, deputy lead investigator for the Mars Plant Experiment, "We still have to figure out how to keep a camera in a greenhouse from fogging up."