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Life on Mars : The Mars BioPod v1

This is my first blog post about what I call our "Mars BioPod v1". This has been a whole-family project as a fun way to get the kids connected with where their food comes from, as well as the fun of building something that could be used in the future on Mars.

Scenario: Humans have reached Mars. As my personal hero is Elon Musk, we’re going to use his SpaceX launch schedule that a flight will be every 26 months (this is roughly when the planets are aligned to allow a travel mission). Therefore, a colonist would need food for 26-months, and taking that amount of food in dried/frozen format would be costly (Falcon aims to get the cost down to $1,000 per pound). So, the question is, what is the most effective way to produce a varied diet for the colonists?!

For those of you who have seen “The Martian”, you will be familiar with the principle of using poo to feed your plants! The Mars BioPod v1 it’s a crucial part of the equation for success. However, don’t worry, for our project we’re using fish poo, not human poo so we don’t have to worry about pathogens and simply because we don’t want to put people off paying the $150,000 flight ticket if the cost alone didn’t already!

... if we can achieve self-sufficiency on Mars, we can also achieve it at home

So, the idea is to combine the principles of hydroponics (growing plants in nutrient rich water) and aquaculture (rearing trout in our case) in a symbiotic relationship, called aquaponics. The fish provide nutrients for the plants, and the plants clean the water for the fish. This means our colonists have fresh fish (high in protein) and vegetation to eat, from the inputs of sunlight, water and fish food. So there we have it, the Mars BioPod aims to be the way to feed Martians. And by extension, if we can achieve self-sufficiency on Mars, we can also achieve it at home. As the saying goes, think big or go home!

THINK BIG, OR GO HOME

Mars BioPod v1 Diagram

The aquaponics system that we are using is made up of two intermediate bulk containers (IBCs). These hold 1000 liters. An IBC has an outer cage and inner plastic container. The plastic container can be cut to allow access to the fish and the plants as in the diagram below. The fish tank contains a pump that pumps the water up to the grow bed. There is a siphon to periodically drain the water back down to the fish tank. In our setup, we are also using LED lights (more on that later) and custom made IBC jackets to try and keep consistent growing conditions. The fish we are rearing in the lower tank are Rainbow Trout.

On Mars, sunlight is abundant (Mars has a roughly 24 hour day too) and water is available too, frozen under the surface. I shall also assume that there is a material similar to clay (although I’m no astro-geologist) that can be used as a material to grow the plants in. Water could be extracted from the ice under the surface, however, there would probably be quite an expense to get this water extracted, so the fact that aquaponics is much more water efficient than traditional farming methods bodes well. Mars has at atmosphere made up of plenty of Carbon Dioxide so we’re fine for that too. The fish would need some oxygen pumped into the water presumably from the same air supply the humans would need which can be extracted from the frozen water.

So the main input would be fish food (normally available in pellets) which you could bring from earth. If you’re clever, you could also use food waste and alike to grow either black fly larvae or meal-worms for fish food, or you could grow duckweed to reduce the cost of getting food to Mars. To read more about extending this food cycle, please see The Family Sufficient Food Cycle.

In our Mars BioPod, we’re also using LED lighting to get round the year growing, and consistent growing conditions on earth. This technology might also be useful to up food production, or even use it on the flight to Mars itself (some pseudo gravity would be needed I guess though) as spaceships generally do not have large windows (presumably to keep harmful radiation out). Alternatively, it’s possible that the Martian colonists might be underground to save them from the harmful radiation from the sun due to the lack of atmosphere (until they have geo-engineered the planet which could take some time!). In fact, in our selection to choose the wavelengths and power of LEDs to use in our setup, we actually used research from NASA to help us come up with this (as well as our choice to grow red romaine lettuce) from the Veggie hydroponic setup on the Mir space station:

Steve Swanson with the Veggie on the Mir Space Station

Veggie weighs 7.2 kg and requires 115 Watts of power. While stowed Veggie requires 0.02 m3 and deployed it requires 0.11 m3 of space. Veggie has a growing area of 0.16 m2 with a maximum growth height of 45 cm. The hardware is cooled with cabin or avionics air. The Veggie light sources are red (640 nm) 300 micromole/m2/s, green (540 nm) 30 micromole/m2/s and blue (440 nm) 50 micromole/m2/s. From http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/Veggie.html

Our next step is to use technology to help us monitor the environmental variables for the plants and the fish. We don’t want ammonia/nitrate/nitrite levels to rise too high that the fish would die, or air temperatures kill the plants, etc. etc. So, stay tuned for the next post where I’ll reach into the detail of how we can track our objectives for good quality water.

About the author

I am a nerd by trade, and run my own company (Webtechy Ltd) specializing in Microsoft technologies such as Azure, SharePoint and Office 365 as well as other content management systems. I also enjoy graphic design in PhotoShop and tinkering around with Arduino's and Raspberry Pi's. In my spare time I like to go to the gym, running (well, I say "enjoy"), and martial arts.

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