China is planning a trip to Mars — and they have the vegetables to prove it. In a recently concluded lab experiment, a 300 cubic meter cabin was converted into a grow-space that served as a "ecological life support system." The tiny biosphere could pave the way for a future mission to Mars in which plants will be used to take in carbon dioxide, while providing oxygen and sustenance for the pioneers living within in.
According to Deng Yibing, deputy director of the Beijing-based Chinese Astronaut Research and Training Center, the experiment was an attempt to create and study the complex interplay of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water with people and plants — and all within a closed system. The study was conducted in Beijing with the help of German scientists.
The experiment, the first of its kind in China, produced four different types of vegetables. The system could someday allow astronauts to produce their own stocks of air, water, vegetables, and fruits.
Regrettably, the official press release was lacking in detail. Given that a truly functional closed biosphere has never actually been created, this would be a rather remarkable accomplishment. It's very likely that the Chinese are overstating the success of the experiment.
Writing in Discovery, Ian O'Neill agrees, saying that China may be getting ahead of itself. He also points to similar efforts elsewhere:
The US and Europe have been experimenting with food cultivation in closed environments for many years, ahead of proposed manned bases on the moon and Mars. Sadly, the funding for large scale tests off-Earth has not been forthcoming.
However, the International Space Station (ISS) has seen a variety of plants grown to observe their reaction to a microgravity environment. The impact of the higher radiation dose at low-Earth orbit has also been a focus of ISS tests on produce grown in space.
China is planing to land an exploratory craft on the Moon for the first time next year, the first critical stage in what is an ambitious space programme — one that includes a long-term plan for a manned Moon landing.
And according to the Xinhua news agency, Chinese astronauts may start a branch of China's ruling Communist party in space. The country's first astronaut, Yang Liwei, recently said, "If we establish a party branch in space, it would also be the 'highest' of its kind in the world."
Reds on a red planet? Kinda makes sense.
Image: A NASA Mars greenhouse concept. Credit: NASA via Discovery.