Arctic greenhouse may lead to
farms on Mars
Nunavut: Future astronauts visiting Mars may arrive to find fresh salads for lunch, thanks to Canadian research.
Scientists are growing lettuce, radishes and beets at the The Arthur C. Clarke Mars Greenhouse on remote Devon Island. They want to learn how to grow crops without human contact in an place that can't normally support edible plants. The plants will be be watched and tended to remotely for almost an entire year.
The Arctic greenhouse is named after Arthur C. Clarke, the British science fiction author who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clarke died in 2008.
The project began in 2002 as a joint effort by the Canadian Space Agency and Mars Institute. Alain Berinstain is the Canadian Space Agency scientist in charge. He said no other greenhouse is designed to operate autonomously like the Arthur Clarke Greenhouse.
"Every greenhouse needs … electrical power, it needs heat and it needs people, to some extent," said Berinstain. "The way we provide the people is through a remote link."
The greenhouse is at the Haughton-Mars Project research station, which is staffed for just a few weeks each summer. Researchers visit the Greenhouse to set up the fall and spring crops. They also upgrade the technology that lets them monitor the plants and keep them watered and warm during the growing seasons
The surrounding environment is a polar desert. The temperatures dip below freezing even in July, and there is little annual precipitation.
"There's very little vegetation, [it's] very rocky," Berinstain said. "It's beautifully desolate."
The harsh conditions and rocky, Mars-like landscape make it a popular spot to test robots, space suits and other technology designed for use on other planets.
"Wherever we end up operating greenhouses on other planets, it will be an extreme environment," Berinstain said. "So it's about learning to work with a greenhouse that way."
The greenhouse is heated with propane during the summer. Water comes from a nearby stream and some is saved over the winter. The plants are monitored with webcams, and sensors check nutrient acidity, water levels and the temperature.
When fall arrives, the propane runs out and the plants freeze. The computers are kept running with wind power during the 24-hour Arctic winter nights.
In spring, temperature sensors detect when it is warm enough to start a second crop.
The computer systems run on solar power in the summer and wind power in the winter.
"It took us about six years of trying before we could have a system robust enough to even work in spring," Berinstain said. He added that electronics aren't designed to survive extreme Arctic winters.
"Just being able to send commands and being able to gather data in the spring was a big milestone."
Researchers are working with University of Florida scientists to develop "living sensors" that can detect greenhouse conditions. These sensors are plants from the mustard family called arabidopsis. Researchers have engineered the plants's genes to glow in the dark when they're stressed — too hot, too cold, or short of water or nutrients.
That means people would no longer need sensors to guess the plant's condition.
"With this technique, you can ask a plant directly, 'Are you hungry, are you thirsty, are you hot, are you cold?" Berinstain said.
Berinstain said such living sensors would be very robust and could be used in greenhouses both in space and on Earth.
Arthur C. Clarke greenhouse webcams: www.marsonearth.org/arthur_clarke_mars_greenhouse/
Backgrounds: Robert Kaufman Fabrics: http://www.robertkaufman.com/
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