NASA taps Utah State University researchers to solve agricultural problems on Mars

LOGAN — A group of Utah State University researchers have been experimenting with agricultural methods to help NASA learn how to survive on Mars.

Professor Bruce Bugbee and doctoral student Noah Langenfeld are part of the group carrying out this research in a greenhouse that allows each element to be controlled.

“They can’t waste anything,” Bugbee said. “Every grain, every drop of water must be recycled.”

In this greenhouse, they meticulously tend to every drop of water while growing lettuce with very little waste.

“We spent up to two years, over 700 days, with plants in the exact same nutrient solution,” Langenfeld said. “We refill them every couple of days, to supplement what’s being used by the plants.”

In reality, agriculture on Mars would most likely take place underground. Theoretically, crops will be safe from the dangers of radiation and meteorites.

Utah State University researchers use a nutrient solution to encourage lettuce growth. (Photo: Mike Anderson, KSL-TV)

This is why the laboratory has spaces to see how to grow corn under artificial LED light.

“The central question is how small and efficient can we make this while remaining stable?” » said Bugbee. “If it’s too small, it’s going to become unstable. Something goes wrong, everyone dies.”

In another laboratory, they can control everything down to the composition of the gases inside.

“Here on Earth, we end up wasting a lot of nitrogen,” Langenfeld said. “About half of the nitrogen intended for agriculture ends up being lost, either as a gas or through leaching and eventually becomes an environmental pollutant.”

All of these efforts help answer the future question of survivability on Mars.

“Not only can we somehow help humanity reach these new frontiers, but all of this research is still applicable to the agriculture that we do on Earth,” Langenfeld said.

USU researchers are working with four other universities to help NASA learn how to survive on Mars. The space agency has also just rewarded each of them for their efforts with a group excellence award.

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