Spaceflight Insider

Students to send life to Mars on board Mars One lander in 2018

Artist's rendering of the Mars One lander

Artist's rendering of the Mars One lander. Credit: Mars One

The first step to establish a permanent colony on Mars could be taken in 2018 when a group of European students will send its project to the Red Planet. The team composed of students from Portugal, Spain and Netherlands has won the Mars One University Competition which offers a one way ticket to Mars for a scientific payload. The winning project which aims to germinate the first seed on the Red Planet, will fly to the surface of Mars on board the Mars One unmanned lander scheduled to be launched in 2018.

“We wanted to perform a useful experiment in order to establish a permanent human colony on the Red Planet before 2030, where any kind of vital support is required,” Miguel Valbuena of the Biological Research Centre in Madrid (Spain) and the ‘Seed’ project team member told “Plants could supply oxygen and food, but according to several researches on the International Space Station, plants have trouble to grow in an environment outside Earth. We would like to check in situ the real difficulties for plant development, monitoring the growth of some seeds that in the future could serve as vital support for the first humans on Mars.”

Seed One experiment as seen on Spaceflight Insider

Artist conception of the Seed One experiment, which hopes to grow the first plants on Mars. Photo Credit: Mars One

The ‘Seed’ project, selected by popular vote from an initial 35 university proposals, aims to contribute to the development of life support systems and provide a deeper understanding of plant growth on Mars. The payload will consist of an external container, which provides protection from the harsh environment, and interior container, which will hold several seed cassettes. The seeds will stem from the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, which is commonly used in space plant studies. After landing, the seeds inside the cassette will be provided with conditions for germination and seedling growth. The growth will then be recorded using images transmitted back to Earth.

At the end of the experiment, seedling growth will be terminated by deactivating the localized temperature system. To meet the intention of the planetary protection regulations the team will ensure that the flight hardware is sterile and that it remains contained.

“There are some main problems if we want to grow plants on Mars: radiation, temperature, soil and gravity. Radiation is higher than on Earth and, probably, long-term lethal. The thermal oscillation on Mars could be 170 degrees Fahrenheit (80 degrees Celsius) between day and night,” Valbuena said. “The first evidence, provided by recent NASA exploration missions, does not confirm the fertility of Mars soil, and the light that arrives to the fourth planet in our solar system, could be not enough for the photosynthesis. In addition, gravity, that on Mars is 0.36 times the gravity on Earth, has been studied on the ISS and simulators of weightlessness and its lack produces alterations in plant development and proliferation. In conclusion, we have to change our mind and imagine a garden covered and protected under a greenhouse, isolated from the environment of our neighbor planet.”

Team behind the Seed One experiment as seen on Spaceflight Insider

Team behind the Seed One experiment. Photo Credit: Univ. of Portugal

The team claims that plants are one of the key solutions to contribute for the settlement of a human extraterrestrial base due to their photosynthetic capacity to create oxygen and food and resistance to adverse environments.

‘Seed’ consists of four bioengineering students from the University of Porto (Portugal) and two PhD students from MIT Portugal and the University of Madrid. The team is supported by Dr. Maria Helena Carvalho, plant researcher at IBMC and Dr. Jack van Loon, from the VU Medical Center, VU-University in Amsterdam (Netherlands). The project benefits from scientific and technical support from several advisers, whose expertise range from biological systems to spacecraft development and validation.

“The University of Porto, particularly the Faculty of Engineering is helping with the project, and some tests in microgravity will take place at the VU-University of Amsterdam, simulating part of the environment that the seeds will have in Mars,” Valbuena added.

Mars One habitat as seen on Spaceflight Insider

Artist concept of an astronaut standing outside the Mars One habitat. Image Credit: Mars One

Valbuena acknowledged that it is very gratifying to see that the entire job carried out was worth it. He admitted the win surprised him because they competed against very high-level projects. “Now, we have to come up to the expectations of all the people who supported us,” he said.

Dutch organization Mars One plans to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars. The mission, slated for a 2018 launch, will include a robotic lander and a communications satellite. Mars One has contracted Lockheed Martin and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) to develop mission concept studies. The Mars lander will be built by Lockheed Martin and the communications satellite will be built by SSTL. This 2018 mission will be a demonstration mission and will provide proof of concept for some of the technologies that are important for a permanent human settlement on Mars.


Welcome to Spaceflight Insider! Be sure to follow us on Facebook: Spaceflight Insider as well as on Twitter at: @SpaceflightIns






Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

Reader Comments

Plants will not provide a reliable oxygen supply in a closed environment such as a Mars base. This has already been established. Oxygen will come from splitting water ice. It’s also likely that future Martians will not rely on farming for food. Most of what they eat will be artificial nutrients, mined and processed by 3-D printers.

Per NASA’s Advanced Life Support Baseline Values and Assumptions Document, Section 4.3, “If approximately 50% or more of the food, by dry mass, is produced on site, all the required air can be regenerated by the same process.” This is because while plant photosynthesis and the crew’s cellular respiration pretty much balance one another out, with the plants generating the same amount of O2 from CO2 while growing the food that the crew uses and converts back to CO2 while metabolizing the food, we only eat and metabolize about 50% of a plant, with the rest being waste. (The usable fraction is higher for crops such as lettuce, where we eat all but the roots, and lower for crops such as peanuts, of which only 25% of the crop mass is edible.)

If nearly 100% of the food is grown, then it will require twice as much CO2 as is exhaled by the crew and will generate twice as much O2 as will be used by the crew. On Mars, the extra CO2 can come from the atmosphere, which is 96% CO2, though at a pressure of only about 1% of Earth’s sea level pressure. The excess O2 generated can be separated and stored for use during EVAs, much as the CASEO (Cabin Air Separator for EVA Oxygen) system would have done on the International Space Station, had NASA chosen to fly it. (Instead, they decided to fly high pressure (6000 psi Nitrogen/Oxygen Recharge System — NORS) tanks of O2 on resupply flights to recharge the EVA systems.)

You mentioned that plants would not provide a reliable source of O2, and just as a crew should have a substantial cache of food in case of crop failure, they should also have a alternate means of generating O2, such as the electrolysis method you alluded to, but as long as they are attempting to grow most of their food, and the crop is coming in well, then the crops themselves will generate ample oxygen.

⚠ Commenting Rules

Post Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *