HOTY2017

This Biologist Wants to Grow Vegetables on Mars

His work could help astronauts grow tomatoes on the Red Planet one day.

Lisa Cumming

Lisa Cumming

Rei Watanabe

University of Guelph biologist Mike Dixon is developing technologies to grow edible crops, like lettuce and tomatoes, in space. Astronauts will need fresh produce to live off-Earth, he explains. With no manned Moon or Mars missions on the horizon, he’s using this same tech in the meantime to grow marijuana here on Earth, which will be legalized in Canada in 2018.

“Our entire program is based on having to go to the Moon and Mars, and having to grow plants for human life support,” Dixon, the director of Guelph’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility, told me.

Dixon has spent the last year researching and developing a chamber, “The Fridge” as he calls it affectionately, that serves as a controlled environment for growing marijuana plants. This chamber is a version of what would be sent into space to allow astronauts to grow their own plants there. “All the technologies required to [grow fresh food in space] are being deployed in the service of growing really good marijuana,” he said.

Being able to consume fresh produce is important because of the health effects that the anti-gravity environment has on the body. Eating familiar foods has a beneficial psychological effect on astronauts, too, and caring for plants can provide comfort.

But space travel is very expensive, and every additional item that needs to be launched off Earth’s surface has a cost. For that reason, Dixon believes that space crops of the future will be grown in inflatable greenhouses, which can be packed down relatively small for liftoff, then inflated in space.

Even so, “it’s still tough” to secure funding for the kind of research he does, he said.
He called biological life support, including space greenhouses, “the new kid on the block.”

Read More: Inside NASA’s Space Farming Labs

“It’s a long road, it’s 50 or 100 years from now before we have substantial plant production systems on Mars, for example, to support human exploration,” Dixon said. “We’re not just instantly going to blast off to Mars and grow 10 acres of tomatoes under an inflatable structure. There’s a lot of baby steps.”

One of the first, Dixon said, will be to go back to the Moon and test out new technologies there. “It’s not on anyone’s front burner today,” Dixon said. There’s also not much movement south of the border, despite Vice President Pence penning that op-ed in The Wall Street Journal declaring that America will be going back to the Moon. The timeline still is not in place.

Still, our first astronauts to Mars will need work like Dixon’s to survive.

“We’re not leaving this planet without green plants,” he said. “It determines how far from Earth we can go and how long we can stay so we do absolutely, we must figure out how to routinely and reliably recycle hydroponic nutrient solutions and carbon and atmosphere and water. So I guess we’ll have a job for a while.”

Sending marijuana to space, a plant astronauts can’t even eat, is even further afield, he pointed out. “You can’t afford to spend that kind of space exploration currency on growing plants you can’t eat. Yet,” Dixon said. He believes marijuana could make it to space one day. “They’re going to grow barley and make single malt whiskey at some point. Why not marijuana?”

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