Mars Research You Can Help With – a guest post by Douglas Loss

Hello, everyone.  I told Sarah about something a few of us at the Interstellar Research Group (IRG) have been throwing around for a few weeks, and she asked me to do a guest post about it.  I have to warn you all, this will have a call to action (or at least dissemination) at the end, so be ready!

Just a note on usage.  I’m writing this in the first person, as if I did all this myself.  Some of it I did personally, some of it was done by others or supervised by them while I did the scut-work.  Just FYI.

A few weeks ago a number of us from the IRG were attending LibertyCon in Chattanooga, which was where our organization was initially started a good number of years ago. Some of us were on a panel discussing what was needed to establish an enduring human presence on Mars.  During the discussion it became clear to us that pretty much all the researchers and research being done were focused on technological aspects of the question, and next to none on the biological ones.  By this we meant the creation of functional “soil,” not merely regolith, which would have the biological microbial components common on Earth to allow the healthy and healthful production of vegetable crops for human consumption. It turns out that a few of us at IRG have the contacts and backgrounds necessary to conduct exactly that primary research. I decided to spend the next week or so trying to marshal commitments from the people and facilities we would need to get this research started, and then to see if we can break some new ground (yes, I realize the pun I just committed) in extraterrestrial farming!

I think the project I’m going to propose would fit very nicely into the overall Space Analog for the Moon and Mars (SAM) project ( Here in broad outline is the proposal.

We’d like to set up a “shoebox” environment, in a small sealed system, where a totally accurate Martian regolith simulant under as accurate conditions of temperature, atmospheric composition and pressure, incident radiation of all sorts and any other relevant conditions can be inoculated with various mixes of biological agents to see the possibilities of creating a microbiome of sorts within the regolith, creating an analog to terrestrial soil rather than the (presumably) sterile substrate endemic on Mars.

I did some very rough preliminary research on this idea. I thought the first thing we would need to do is a literature search to see if anyone else has indeed done some work around this idea.  I hadn’t done anything yet as I wanted to gauge the possibility of getting an actual experiment started before investing the time.  But my initial thinking was that if it had been done, we all probably would  have heard about it, as it would have excited lots of people.

The next thing would be to assemble a competent research team of interested people.  I’m thinking soil microbiologists, researchers into the composition of the Martian regolith, the Martian atmosphere and the surface radiation environment, etc.  To that end I’ve come across this article: from 2013, in which some of the questions we would investigate are mentioned.  The questions are addressed by Peter Smith, who is a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona.  I hoped we might be able to approach Professor Smith for some advice and perhaps assistance in assembling a research team.

As for materials needed, the current standard source of Martian regolith simulant is MGS-1 from Exolith Lab in Florida:

This simulant is well thought of, but doesn’t include the calcium perchlorate that would be needed to truly simulate the Martian regolith.  This is because perchlorate in the needed amounts is basically poisonous.  Nevertheless, to conduct the experiment properly we would need to mix the proper ratio of perchlorate into our test environments.  This would likely require clean-room conditions, BIGs (biological isolation garments), and such.  Ca(ClO4)2 or CaCl2O8 is available from various sources:

In my head, here is how I’m envisioning this experiment.  We would need a hermetically-sealed container of moderate size to contain a depth of regolith simulant.  This container would need to be capable of holding a temperature at the regolith surface of 20 C to -75 C, and a gas pressure of 6.35 mbar with a gas composition of:

gas                                           percentage by weight

carbon dioxide (CO2)             95.32

molecular nitrogen (N2)          2.7

argon (Ar)                               1.6

molecular oxygen (O2)           0.13

carbon monoxide (CO)           0.07

water vapour (H2O)                0.03

neon (Ne)                                0.00025

krypton (Kr)                            0.00003

xenon (Xe)                              0.000008

At a guess, the noble gas components could be ignored, but I suspect the rest would need to be kept in the mix.

As for the surface radiation environment, this is the information I have:

I have no idea what would be required to duplicate this in the experiment or if it is even possible.  As for visible light, the maximum solar insolation on Mars is about 590 W/m2, and would have to be variable from 0 to this maximum on the Martian solar day length of 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds.

What biological inoculants would be used for purposes of this (actually these, as I would expect different “bouquets” of inoculants would be tested) experiment is something I have absolutely no knowledge of, which is why I’m just a fan-boy rather than a principal investigator.

We knew it wouldn’t be as easy as Matt Damon made it look, just crapping on some regolith and shoving potatoes into it, but hey, we’re big-brained scientists, we ought to be able to figure it out!

I found 5 scientific papers dealing with plant propagation in Martian regolith simulant and  downloaded 4 them (the 5th would cost $51 to get, which is a bit pricey for me right now) and read through them to see if there are any referenced papers in any of them that I could also get.  But from a quick glance it didn’t appear to me that any of them approached the things that we were talking about.

Unfortunately, from the abstract the one paper that would cost me looked to be the one closest to what we’re proposing:

“This article aims to inform the development of biological perchlorate remediation schemes for the preparation of safer human Mars habitats and contaminant-free in situ resource utilization (ISRU) for crop production in these settings. No prior studies have attempted to remediate perchlorate from Martian regolith simulants. Thus, we draw from previous work on soil, sediment, and water biological remediation that we determined to be most relevant to Martian applications. Approaches include phytoremediation and microbial remediation. Phytoremediation utilizes terrestrial and aquatic plants for perchlorate removal, occurring by 3 different mechanisms: phytoaccumulation, phytodegradation, and rhizodegradation. We suggest potential plant candidates for phytoremediation. We discuss known microbial remediation processes utilizing both rhizosphere-derived microorganisms and extremophiles, and the most likely microorganism candidates for a successful microbial remediation of Martian regolith considering the harsh Martian environment. We also briefly discuss the economic implications of perchlorate remediation for ISRU farming

viability. We recommend this article as a reference for future attempts to successfully and cost-effectively develop biological remediation technologies to remove perchlorate from Martian regolith, improving the viability of ISRU crop production.”

Its focus was on perchlorate removal rather than microbiome construction, but it was definitely closely adjacent to what we’d been talking about.  I  contacted the lead author and added him to our emailing list with his consent.

It was at this point I started to get some helpful ideas and suggestions from the correspondents.

Nick Nielsen said, “Thanks for this! It is an important problem, and there are a great many directions that research could take. For example, you note that the starting point would be ‘a small sealed system, where a totally accurate Martian regolith simulant…’ If one wants to get from regolith to a functional soil, should one assume that all this is being done on a planetary surface (presumably on Mars) or is the regolith simply to be the soil ‘seed’ as it were, not necessarily tied to the planet from which it is drawn? That is to say, one could experiment with regolith on a space station apart from any planetary surface, and this raises the question where the best soil-precursor is to be found. It might be on a moon of Mars, or an asteroid, or some other place.”

Joe Meany said, “I followed up on the question of perchlorates in the martian regolith that you and I discussed after the panel. The article you suggested led to a really nice review article by Chris McCay. It turns out that the perchlorate salts can be present in as much as 1%(!) with a mixture of calcium, magnesium, and ammonium cations.

“This is actually quite interesting, as those three cations are biologically important. I especially didn’t expect the ammonium perchlorate, but ammonium salts are especially valuable for habitation. There are well-identified bacterial strains capable of reducing perchlorate back to (biologically important) chloride, producing two molecules of breathable oxygen per molecule of perchlorate. Perchlorate salts are also water-soluble, so once martian regolith is introduced to a bacterial tank, it will be quickly accessible for metabolism. Importantly, the breakdown of the perchlorate salts would be exothermic, allowing some non-zero energy transfer from the exterior environment into the habitat via this metabolic process.

“Furthermore, it seems that the mechanism of perchlorate formation comes from UV exposure in the martian atmosphere, so simply disposing any unwanted regolith back outside would ‘recharge’ it for future consumption.”

The head of the SAM said, “Yes, there is a need for this, and it is a good fit for SAM (in fact, it was an original cornerstone to our science objectives). I suggest only that there is quite a bit of research into this already (mechanical, chemical, biological) so be certain that you are not duplicating research already in motion.

“From the SAM point of view, the best thing to do is to build a team that would work within SAM for a defined period of time, perhaps with Mars regolith simulant (look to The team project proposal would need to take advantage of the hermetically sealed environment (meaning, what can you do in SAM that you can’t do in a normal lab). Cost is approximately $12k per week for a team of four.”

This brought up a significant cost factor, which we ignored for the moment. I then received a reply from Dr. Christopher Oze, the lead author of the one paper (above) that I hadn’t read:

“I’ve been working on Martian regolith and using it for a variety of purposes from construction to agriculture on Mars for a little over a decade now.  I would probably say most of my research has been centered around dealing with the non-tech issues related to humans being able to cope/progress on Mars ( has a few examples)   If you’re looking for martian regolith at bulk scales for agriculture or civil engineering purposes, we can recreate it at kilograms scale for just about any reported value (mineralogy, geochemistry, particle size, etc.) from Mars’ surface.  We just spent the last year figuring out how to remove (or cope) with perchlorate in regolith.    Besides that, so many other issues need to be figured out such as how to stop the naturally cementing nature of regolith related to particle sizes/texture, how seed size plays a critical role for plant success, or how perchlorate (even when removed) may have increased metal availability so much that the plants will have to deal with this as well (serpentine soils and its vegetation on Earth provide some lessons on how to get around this issue).”

I replied to him, “Thank you for your assistance in our nascent quest to find other work in this area.  We haven’t gone through the literature in any detail yet, but from what I can see no one has looked at regolith inoculation in situ or attempting to create a terrestrial analog microbiome in any Martian regolith.  Do you know of any work in that specific area?”

He came back with, “I’ve run a few experiments where I have added perchlorate (at martian levels) to terrestrial soils and found that it adversely affected the microorganisms as well as the plants.  Part of prepping/inoculating the regolith is related to how to deal with perchlorate.  There are a few microorganisms that can use perchlorate and that might be a good starting point.”

I let him know that I’d just found these papers:

I’ve found these papers during my literature search for experiments in similar areas:

Potential Biological Remediation Strategies for Removing Perchlorate from Martian Regolith

The legume-rhizobia symbiosis can be supported on Mars soil simulants

Cyanobacteria and microalgae in supporting human habitation on Mars

One of the manufacturers of Martian regolith simulants chimed in: “Mars regolith, and thus simulants for it, is a very interesting material. One of the biggest challenges- that might actually be a benefit in this area of research- is the wide range of compositions and material properties on Mars. One general Martian simulant is unlikely to be representative of much of Martian regolith. This is also an issue with lunar simulants, and the Moon has much less variability compared to Mars! Historically, the majority of our simulants are made for the lunar applications and we have four general simulants (and counting!) depending on where our clients plan to land in addition to customizing compositions for specific use cases. Looking into the specifications of a landing site would be a good first step to determining the ideal simulant properties and composition.

“The benefit to the variety of Martian regolith is that there will likely be some compositions better suited for agricultural purposes.  Very recently, early studies using Apollo lunar regolith noted a difference in plant growth based on the maturity (age) of the sample. Like on Earth, targeting areas that are more ‘agreeable’ to agriculture would save a lot of effort and resources as does choosing the right crops for that region.

“Regarding perchlorates in Martian regolith, there are hazards as you noted which I assume is why UCF isn’t selling them in their Martian simulant. It is not something you want to provide to someone unused to handling them, but I also say that about regular simulants due to the dust hazards. We have been developing Martian simulants as well and are exploring the use of perchlorates for specialized use.

“One thing to keep in mind with all simulants is that understanding its use cases, strengths, and limitations is important as is accounting for these variables. This comes down knowing which properties of the simulant are vital (ie. mechanical, physical, chemical, etc.) and which ones may not be as accurately represented in the test material. Additionally, understanding how the test setup affects the test material is important. It sounds like you are looking into environmental conditions, but that will cause the simulant to act differently than it does in an ambient environment so characterizing those differences may (or may not) be important to understanding how it will affect the test results.”

It was at about this time that I wrote up a where-we-are-now summation of the initial excitement with this idea:

“I’ve spent the past few days, when I’ve had time, reading through the papers I mentioned to you all and noting papers in their references that will be interesting to read.  While I haven’t finished reading all of these papers, I did notice one thing that seems to be a constant with the research being done heretofore.  First though, there has been a fair amount more research into the biological and agricultural suitability of Martian regolith that I or most of my more technical-minded friends had realized.  Great!

“But what I noticed is that (so far in my reading) none of this research was done in anything remotely approximating a Martian surface environment.  Instead, everything seems to have been along the lines of, ‘if this Martian regolith existed on Earth, with our temperature, atmospheric composition and pressure, insolation, etc., trying to grow plants on it would give this result.’  This, while interesting, doesn’t seem particularly useful to me.  It’s along the lines of the underpants gnomes from South Park, missing an important step in what is intended:

1. Regolith on the surface of Mars

2. ???

3. Agriculture!

“If we do move forward with the type of experiment or experiments I and others here have envisioned, I think we need to focus on that step 2, and most importantly the early part of it, what it might take to make Martian regolith under Martian surface environmental conditions more amenable (or amenable at all) to the growth of terrestrial plants.  I hope these thoughts might help us define the experimental designs more rigorously.”

I followed that with: “As you can tell from my email address, I’m sending all this out through my connection with the Interstellar Research Group (IRG).  That’s because when the idea came up at the recently-concluded LibertyCon science fiction convention in Chattanooga, a number of us on the panel generating the idea were in some way connected with the IRG and got support from the organization to explore the idea.

“Here is where things get a bit murky.  The IRG isn’t a research institute and isn’t set up or equipped to pursue primary research such as the Mars Regolith Microbiome Inoculation Experiment (MaRMIE–I’ve just invented a shorthand acronym for this concept) experiments.  Further, the remit of the IRG is interstellar topics, not intra-system ones.

“So if MaRMIE is to go further than these discussions, we will have to identify one or more institutions able and interested in such experiments and persuade one or more researchers at said institutions to propose and take charge of the experiments.”

(More on that in the final call for action below.)

A few more comments about the experiment itself, from a seasoned technologist and space entrepreneur in the group: “‘cheap’ Martian agriculture would be inflated plastic bubbles as greenhouses, pumped up with Martian atmosphere to enough pressure to let the plants grow (at least about 0.2 bar, though more may well be required), with the soil used as growth medium, irrigated with external water supply (from ice or permafrost mining most likely, though atmospheric condensation is also a possibility).

“You’d want a very low-labor way of prepping the soil; if you have to get the perchlorates out (about which I have no opinion), you’d want to do something simple — mound the soil up and let the water pull them out, or plant an initial crop of something tolerant to the perchlorates and then mulch it back in, or something.​

“But yes, the combination of conditions hasn’t often been done. If you wanted to get really aggressive, you’d combine that with a clinostat to simulate the Martian gravity effects.  Oh, and you hardly need an experiment to show that standard Martian surface pressure won’t work; the plants would be freeze-dried!   The question is how low of a mostly CO2 atmosphere pressure will​ work.”

I answered, “I was thinking about the clinostat idea, but I think that would probably be a bit cost-prohibitive for the size we’d need for macro-plants in even a greenhouse environment.  I’d like to start first with regolith inoculants to see if we can remediate the perchlorates biologically and retain some of the chemical components for plant use. As to increasing the pressure and probably temperature, I’m thinking of those as variables that could be part of the experiment.  What I’m hoping for is an experiment that might show that the current environmental conditions aren’t at all compatible with agriculture, and might then allow the gradual modification of one condition or another till we find the minimum needed for useful agricultural production.  I was thinking maybe some arctic microbes, fungi, etc., would have a shot at these temperatures and atmosphere conditions.”

It was at about this time that we started to think about who might be able to perform this experiment, or these experiments if (as it probably should) this idea expanded into multiple tests.  I contacted some of the authors of papers our literature search had come across to see if they would be interested, without any success.  I did have a thought that perhaps we could contact SpaceX and inquire about their assistance or even take-over in conducting such an experiment, as their stated long-term goal is colonizing Mars.  This research would clearly (to my mind at least) need to be done before any such colonization could be successful.

Again, Joe Meany came up with an interesting idea: “My recommendation for strategy is to write a review article based on the currently available literature that you’ve begun to post within the earlier threads. To give ourselves a deadline, I think we would want this together for the next IRG newsletter (giving us a little over 3 months to complete). I think the coauthors on the review article need to express affirmative response by some close deadline (July 1?) so that we know exactly who is interested in this project and being actively involved. If we do this right, a summary of our findings can be published in the newsletter, but I think that a properly thorough research review article would be publishable within a journal like Acta Astronautica.

“Within the time that we are writing this article, we should have already identified how to answer the “Heilmeier Catechism” which will guide both that review research and specifically pre-answer questions as to how we’ll fund actual experiments. Narrowing down funding sources will dictate who we ultimately select as partners going forward.”

The simulant manufacturer had these thoughts: “I’m not sure I have much to contribute to the research side at this point, but I will throw in a few cents to the ‘how to start this’ discussion. It is essentially going to come down to experiment fidelity, budget, and time. I would argue that the second and third points will influence the first. If you are going for the type of fidelity I believe you are for this experiment with all the environmental parameters tightly controlled, it is going to be very costly especially given that agricultural experiments can run weeks and have multiple samples to create some level of statistical significance.

“While the organizations involved currently in the discussion may have internal funding to support the project, I would not hang my cap on that just yet. Even if they have internal funding, they may have to petition for it (while not included here, I know SwRI does this internally). If you are looking for outside funding, the project and its partners will need to be defined and a grant proposal put together. From experience, this starts to extend the timeline as there is a lot of ‘hurry up and wait.’ This is fine if there is not a rush for the information, but likewise, if there is not a defined ‘need,’ will it be funded?

“Conversely, if you pass this project on to a company, such as SpaceX, the control over the fidelity of the experiment will turn to them. In our work, we find a lot of things besides the test environment and test materials influence the budget, and thus testing is often relegated to the side until it is time to do so. By that point, budgets are mostly allocated and timing is very limited (ie. happening in the next few weeks). This greatly limits what can be done. This mentality is starting to change slowly so I am hoping more people begin testing plans sooner and with more resources, but that is not always the case.

“All that to say that if the project ends up being pursued, going in with a good, realistic game plan of what needs to be accomplished, what it will take to do that, and finding people with the same passion for good results is important!”

One more comment from an experienced space enthusiast about the experimental procedure itself: “It doesn’t seem to be a hard thing to do.  I think the setup of the Martian conditions could be done quite simply with a regolith analog, placed in a low-pressure vessel with dimmable LED lights to mimic the Martian insolation (if needed).

“I would have thought this would make a good PhD program experiment.  I vaguely recall having read about something like this as having been done. (It was certainly done on lunar soil and analogs in the 1970s, although the purpose was to see if crops could be grown, rather than creating terrestrial soil.) The kit seems to be fairly minimal in cost.  The hard part is getting the inoculants and deciding how to measure progress – e.g. bacterial density over time, perchlorate concentration, etc.

“My question is how much does it have to mimic Mars’ external environment. Could the experiment be done with the regolith analog, but under 1 atm of air and whatever light conditions are desired because on Mars this could be inside a structure that is being prepared for agriculture?

“I would start under terrestrial conditions, and then, if successful, create a set of experiments to mimic stages towards a native Mars environment to see which, if any, conditions impact growth and perchlorate removal.”

I’ve included a list of all the papers dealing with agricultural and biological experiments in simulated Martian environments here, if you’d like to see what we found.  There are many more, these are just the ones that caught our attention as particularly cogent to our idea.

So now, the call to action.  We have a general description of the experiment or experiments we’d like to conduct, and are amenable to some modification of the details and procedures.  What we don’t have is a research organization or researchers interested in and willing to conduct this (these) experiment(s).  We are approaching various organizations as we identify them, but we’re hoping you might have some ideas of who to take this to and how to approach them.  If you do, please contact me at  And if you don’t have any ideas but have any friends in fields related to this, pass the message along to them and see if they can help!

45 thoughts on “Mars Research You Can Help With – a guest post by Douglas Loss

    1. Thanks! We realize the hurdles in front of us. But hey, no one ever said it would be easy (except maybe KIng Harv).

  1. Just a thought but would it not be more productive to look into growing crops on Mars using aeroponics, aquaponics or hydroponics? Systems that could be layered vertically. Seems a stretch to envision processing enormous amounts of Martian regolith to create fields of wheat, rice or potatoes.

    1. It comes down to questions of the expense of the equipment pre kilocalorie of food produced, the reliability of said equipment and the availability of quick and easy repair when something breaks, and other such considerations. If traditional-style (more or less) agriculture can be made to work on Mars, it would win in a number of these areas.

      1. Are the perchlorates (nasty stuff) present at depth in the Martian regolith? Or limited to the surface layer and not present beyond the impact of ionizing radiation? Of course your quite right its a kilocalorie question. Can’t live off of salads for long, and all the modes I mentioned have been salad creators, Might be modified for high caloric crops though.

        1. I’m not sure of the answer (and I’m not sure that anyone is, as I don’t think there’s been any great depth of digging by any of the missions so far). What I think is of just as great or perhaps even greater concern is the depth of penetration of ionizing radiation at the Martian surface (cosmic rays). On Earth, our magnetic field protects us from those, to a great extent. On Mars, not so. I found this paper, but haven’t had a chance to go through it yet:

          Rapid Radiolytic Degradation of Amino Acids in the Martian Shallow Subsurface: Implications for the Search for Extinct Life

          1. Thanks for the reference which indicates about 2 meters of penetration. But I believe I was thinking about this in the wrong way. The perchlorates are a resource, under heat they break down and O2 is one product. Someone should check my numbers but assuming calcium perchlorate present at 0.5% each colonist would need about 56,000 Kg of regolith processed to provide O2 for that person. Your perchlorate “free” soil being a byproduct of supplying the colonies oxygen demand. These numbers assume that my memory of high school chemistry is up to snuff.

            1. oops a little error make that about 68,000 kg. Anyway a lot of regolith.

  2. “I would start under terrestrial conditions, and then, if successful, create a set of experiments to mimic stages towards a native Mars environment to see which, if any, conditions impact growth and perchlorate removal.”

    This is the most cost effective approach.

    You can also search for the proper perchlorate remediation effects, soil preparation, and agricultural efficiency by varying the environment from terrestrial conditions towards a Martian equivalent along multiple diverse approaches.

    1. Exactly so. There are a number of ways to approach the problem (the ultimate problem being producing foodstuffs on Mars). My immediate inclination was to start with the status quo on the Martian surface and then see what mitigations, enhancements, etc. would be the minimum necessary to reach the desired result. Others came at it from the opposite direction, starting with successful agriculture on Earth and trying to gradually move the conditions necessary for success to as close as Martian-standard as possible.

      1. Starting with terrestrial conditions and working back towards Martian conditions until failure occurs will show us how much change is needed to the Martian environment in the quickest cheapest way.

        Unless, of coarse, if it “just works” the first time under Martian conditions – so we start at both ends and in the middle…

        I would put more effort and money on the more Terestrial experiments – the should succeed quickly and if not, that also shows us something very important.

  3. Excellent subject for Heinlein’s birthday (Re: “Farmer in the Sky”), even though Mars isn’t Ganymede. Good luck with all of it! 🙂

  4. This is most stimulating!! Farmer in the Sky meets reality. I would think that private money like Space X’s would be the best source of support, in that it would not be subject to political vagaries. Not to mention less vulnerable to the inevitable Karens.

    1. Never underestimate the ability of governments to screw things up.

      “Won’t someone please think of the melting Martian ice caps?”

  5. Not to mention importing/manufacturing phosphorus to Mars/other planets. Could be story fodder there with Earth forcing rebellious colonies into submission by cutting off the phosphorus supply.

    1. At which point the colonies deliver multi-ton canisters of food (rice?) at terminal velocity? (“Here;catch!”) 🙂

    2. not just phosphorus – urea, ammonia, and other nitrates…

      We could all chip in and send our pee!

      I wonder what SpaceX would do with all the donations….

      1. “We could all chip in and send our pee!”

        You may have to fight the truckers; with the shortage of DEF the idea is that they can piss in the tanks and fool the system. Plus, it should work…

  6. Get a vegetable farmer, or someone from the state cooperative extension. Scientists are great but you also need people with practical experience growing veggies.

    1. Seed Mars with a bunch of genetically altered earthworms (marsworms?) and 200 years later we have DUNE!

  7. This is absolutely fascinating… not only because of my direct interest, but because I’ve lately been looking at decently-credible ‘infrastructure’ for a fictional late-21st-century Mars society.

    Although that answer, pretty much across the board so far, is “heavy industry” — for instance surface agriculture is done either on algae in little pipes (in mirror-multiplied sunlight) or in half-cylindrical pressurized ‘Quonset huts’ (with more mirrors), since the couple of papers I’d found said even agriculture tests in 50% pressure grew slower and ‘scrawnier’ test-crops. (Yes, you can make a half-pipe or dome with 1″ thickness of polycarbonate per 10′ of radius, IIRC, so it’s heavy industry but not ridiculous like mile-wide domes.) And that assumes crop plants can do fine with essentially no hard-radiation shielding at all. Etc.

    It would be so much better, in the (possibly soon to be) real world, not to need all the extra hardware and so forth.

    And just a few semi-random comments I’ve thought of so far…

    Likely the ‘worst’ feature to simulate is the ionizing (mostly cosmic) radiation… thus a good thing to just leave out in the initial tests. Similarly, if you allow even a thin(-ish) glass greenhouse on Mars, you can cut most or all of the really-nasty UV — and this also lets you add moisture in a way that’s otherwise not really ‘sustainable’ without some kind of enclosure. (While now, of course, you can omit the hard-ultraviolet lamps you’d need otherwise in the test setup.)

    The (by now infamous) perchlorates are a big thing, but perhaps they could simply be washed out of the regolith in a (possibly pressurized) industrial facility. (That fictional setting uses the ‘excess’ perchlorates in batteries — one terminal turns perchlorate into chloride and sets free oxygen as a by-product, and I think that one is even in the standard lists of half-reactions!) So while doing all the soil-ization in place might be a good thing, that one step might require a bit of heavy-ish industry, or (hopefully) not.

    Mars surface pressure can be (places like Hellas basin, which is huge-ish) close to double the average, simply due to elevation. Maybe this won’t help much, see above “maybe plants won’t grow well in far less than an Earth atmosphere” — even though Roberrt Zubrin, tantalizingly but maddeningly without further detail, claims “Experiments have already been done showing that plants can be grown in greenhouses filled with CO2 at Martian pressures” (Ch. 4 of “The Case For Space” subsection “Colonizing Mars”). (I sure couldn’t find anything close to that!)

    This initiative sounds like it might make a real contribution, despite all the decades of interest and the few things I’ve been reading about almost that long, like putting bacteria in “Mars jars” back in the ’70s (or so). So… good luck and Godspeed, and try to keep us ‘in the loop’ here too!

    1. I just realized that I didn’t extend this offer in the body of my guest post. Anyone reading this comment, if you would like to be added to the MaRMIE email discussion list (it can get a bit technical at times, be warned), contact me at and ask to be added. You definitely will be!

    2. “Likely the ‘worst’ feature to simulate is the ionizing (mostly cosmic) radiation…”

      Actually, I think the ‘worst’ feature to simulate would be the .38 g gravity. We’ve already thought about using clinostats to simulate the gravity, but the size of clinostats needed to provide useful data would be truly incredible.

  8. I think y’all probably are correct about it being doable.

    My feeling is that is still a fairly horrible amount of complexity to tackle.

    Fundamentally, you are looking at a chemical space, and trying to map stuff on it. And it is one with a pretty huge number of potential dimensions.

    Focusing on the perchlorate may give you one or a few axes that are a) most important to be able to vary b) likely to have a strong impact on the map.

    Still, high resolution variation of all those chemical components may be a lot of experiments.

    Then, the thing you are trying to map to the chemical space is biological function. Which can be even less tractable to theory than /chemistry/ is.

    1. Seriously interesting lines of thinking running from this.

      This would obviously have to scale to an industrial process. How would such a process be engineered?

      From a fiction perspective, how would such engineers think?

      1. I leave the fiction to others, as I just don’t have the internal impetus to write fiction. A character flaw, no doubt. But I,and many of those of us working on this sort of thing, are avid readers of SF and have decided that we want to BE the characters in those stories. This is our way of trying to become such folks.

    2. “Then, the thing you are trying to map to the chemical space is biological function. Which can be even less tractable to theory than /chemistry/ is.”

      Hence the need for experimentation! 😀

      1. Exactly.

        Heavily empirical space to explore.

        I’ve slowly come to realize how many fields have a lot of stuff that theory predicts poorly, and which need to heavily rely on empirical measurement that is very close to the point that you need to know.

        I’m pretty much learning baby lessons that you and your friends have probably learned long ago.

        But, it is great to hear from people, and to talk to them about this sort of thing.

  9. @drloss I’m curious about the atmosphere: They say Mars was once warmer, covered with water and had a thicker atmosphere. There is obviously oxygen bound in various forms on the surface, so it sounds remotely plausible for us to gain enough oxygen to breath eventually.

    But then I start to question, my understanding is our atmosphere is held to earth by the planet’s gravity. Which would imply to me that Mars couldn’t accommodate a thicker atmosphere because it has so much less mass. Are there any answers or models on realistically thickening the Martian atmosphere?

    1. So far as I know, no one is thinking of any mega-engineering projects to thicken the martian atmosphere. Martian agriculture will very likely never be an “open-air” activity, but will be either confined to subsurface facilities (lava tubes, excavated spaces, etc.) or to enclosed surface greenhouses of very large size. The martian gravity is .38 that of Earth, and there’s nothing to be done about that. Having said that, I don’t think this would likely have major deleterious effects on vegetative production. Such an experiment could perhaps be done using clinostats, but the size of the clinostats that would be required to provide useful data would be truly mind-boggling and mind-bogglingly expensive.

      1. Lack of a significant magnetic field also leads to the atmosphere being stripped from the planet and something might be done about that.

        1. So how would you create a magnetic field around Mars? That sounds like scary but fun physics!

  10. How much of this can or could be synced with, or runs parallel to, futurist Shaun Moss’ “International Mars Research Station” proposals? He lays out his notions about in situ agriculture (Moss: 8.6.3. In Situ Food Production (Kindle Location 2441)) based on experiments with regolith simulant at Waneningen University in 2013, but overlooks perchlorates entirely. In fact, he only mentions them once, as an inhalation hazard at 11.5.1 (Minimising Dust Migration).

    (Moss’ book and work, including free ebook download, are available at — the book is The International Mars Research Station: An exciting new plan to create a permanent human presence on Mars © 2015 by Shaun Mark Moss. ISBN-13: 978-1508927716.)

    1. I’ve noticed this in nearly all the extant studies about agriculture on Mars. Almost none of them are concerned with the perchlorates, which seems to me to be an incredible oversight. First, the perchorates, when neutralized, will provide a valuable amount of oxygen. Second, the neutralized perchorates will leave various chlorides and metals in the regolith, and we have no experimental data on the potential deleterious or beneficial effects those might have.

  11. Long time lurker, first time commenter.
    Random thoughts: there’s a USGS article Natural Perchlorate Levels in a Desert Ecosystem which found creosote plants hold a lot of perchlorate in their leaves. The Atacama desert has a high amount of perchlorate naturally. It might be worthwhile to see what is growing there that uptakes perchlorates and is already tolerant of a tough environment.
    There is a USDA REEIS article Risks from food crops grown with perchlorate-contaminated irrigation water, which talks about (several crops) alfalfa uptaking perchlorates. That could give you a quick growing nitrogen fixer, a well studied plant, something that could feed potential livestock(rabbits in space?).
    If regolith can be used as a cement, aquaponics/wicking beds could be a realistic goal. There are people growing root crops and fruit trees in these systems. Fish grown in these could also provide a source of protein. C&EN has a article, To build settlements on Mars, we’ll need materials chemistry where they used JSC Mars-1a as cement. Sorry I didn’t use actual links, I didn’t want to get stuck in moderation. I probably jumped a 100 years past where you need to start at but this is so exciting 😁

    1. No problem about using actual links, but could you send me references to all the articles you mention at please? It’s always a good idea to get more information about the things we plan to experiment with, and what’s been done in the past on these and related topics.

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