Elon Musk’s project of colonising Mars is no secret to anyone as well as his SpaceX company that has the focus and aim of bringing private citizens on the red planet starting from 2024. For humans to stay long term on Mars without relying entirely on supplies from Earth, an ISRU (In Situ Resource Utilisation) approach would be necessary. The main consumables needed to support humans on Mars would be:
- Construction material;
All of such consumables are not necessarily a challenge, however, food is the only one that could pose a limitation to long-term stays on Mars.
Food in fact could not be created from raw materials on Mars as we do on Earth so, how would people eat on a planet without its fauna and flora? How would humans survive and support themselves without help and food supplies from Earth? It is indeed true that the food supply chain cannot be transplanted to Mars in its current form, however, similar products to the ones we consume on Earth could be re-created on Mars. Of course, raising animals will not be possible, however, insect-based products, as well as cultured meat, would be included in the diet on Mars. Plant-based foods would also be a strategy for feeding humans on the red planet but let’s have a look at how they would be optimised for this purpose.
Since the presence of crops fields will not be very likely seen on Mars, several universities, as well as the International Space Station (ISS), are actively investigating soil-less applications and how to optimise plant growth specifically focussing on Bioregenerative Life Support Systems (BLSS) such as hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics to be carried out in pressurised volumes to preserve plants from the thin martian atmosphere as well as its sub-zero temperatures.
Genetic modification will also be a tool to improve quality and yield, synthesise bioactive compounds such as vitamins and micronutrients. The future agriculture-based industries on Mars will be a blend of novel agriculture technologies, biotech and robotics.
Insects have similar macronutrients contents per unit mass and significantly higher yields per square meter if compared with plants and farm animals, they are relatively low maintenance and most of the aspects needed for their farming can be automated. This makes insects farming a useful tool for the potential production of food on Mars. It is very much true that insects are not as popular in the western countries as they are in the east and most insect-based foods are met by neophobia, however, insects derived flours (es. cricket flour) can be incorporated into foods without necessarily cause neophobia in the end consumer.
Cellular Agriculture-derived foods
Cellular agriculture will allow us to grow protein-rich foods and alternatives to animal-based products in bioreactors. This will be a useful approach to give the chance to potential future Mars citizens to consume foods we are familiar with. We could produce algae, clean meat and fish as well as alternatives to milk and eggs at a cellular level. We are already eating algae-based foods here and those types of foods (es. spirulina based formulations) are becoming more popular nowadays.
Of course, all of these approaches will encounter difficulties, all of those technologies will need to be adapted for space and especially for Mars harsh conditions. More work is needed at the food science level and that will not only have to do with just making sure that we can produce palatable insect-based foods. It will be important to look at how to minimize the amount of material that would be needed from Earth and contain launch costs. It looks like we will read much interesting research outcomes in the coming years if not months.
Elon Musk says SpaceX is on track to launch people to Mars within 6 years-here’s the full timeline of his plans to populate the red planet. 2018. https://www.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-spacex-mars-plan-timeline-2018-10?r=US&IR=T#2024-blast-people-on-the-first-human-voyage-to-mars-8 (Accessed March 27th, 2021).
Alexander P., Brown C., Arneth A., Dias C., Finnigan J., Moran D., Rounsevell M.D.A. (2017). Could consumption of insects, cultured meat or imitation meat reduce global agricultural land use? Global Food Security.
Carillo P, Morrone B, Fusco GM, De Pascale S, Rouphael Y. Challenges for a Sustainable Food Production System on Board of the International Space Station: A Technical Review. Agronomy. 2020; 10(5):687.
Cannon K.M., Britt, D.T. (2019). Feeding one million people on Mars. New Space. 245 – 254.