It’s no secret that China’s space program is progressing at fast rate, but could the nation leapfrog the US in the realm of human spaceflight by landing the first extraterrestrial “greenhouse” on Mars?


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The plan, as reported by the Chinese state media on Monday, saw a 300 cubic meter “ecological life support system” test being carried out in Beijing — an experiment that was supported by German scientists. In this trial run, four types of vegetables were grown and two people lived inside. It is not clear how long the test lasted or whether the test subjects remained healthy for the duration.

This system forms the basis of a far grander scheme that would allow astronauts to cultivate fresh fruit and veg, produce water and generate oxygen to breathe on the moon and Mars.

Lacking many details, it sounds like many plans that have come before it: a module of a human extraterrestrial habitat used to cultivate fresh fruit and vegetables, while providing a sustainable means of life support.

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Via the Xinhua news agency:

Deng Yibing, deputy director of the Beijing-based Chinese Astronaut Research and Training Center, said that the experiment focused on a dynamic balanced mechanism of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water between people and plants in a closed system … The cabin, a controlled ecological life support system (CELSS) built in 2011, is a model of China’s third generation of astronauts’ life support systems, which is expected to be used in extraterrestrial bases on the Moon or Mars.

Advanced versions of the CELSS would cultivate bacteria to aid with the processing of waste products.

It could be argued that China is getting a little ahead of itself. They haven’t, after all, landed anything on the moon yet. But that could soon change. China’s space agency — that most recently carried out an orbital docking maneuver between a spacecraft and the nation’s prototype space station, Tiangong-1 — has an aggressive human spaceflight schedule that will likely see a robotic lander mission (Chang’e-3) on the lunar surface next year. This would be a prelude to a planned manned landing a few years later.

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.

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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.

The ISS was, after all, the location where several generations of barley were grown and then brought back to Earth. In 2008, the Japanese brewing company Sapporo then brewed a unique “space beer” made from third-generation “space barley.” Although it was primarily a marketing stunt, it proved that the DNA of barley grown in space, compared to controls grown on Earth, was unaffected by microgravity conditions.

Although China may be some years behind the research carried out by the partners of the ISS, might they have the funding and the motivation to land a space-age greenhouse on the moon first? Cultivating food in space would certainly be the cornerstone to the future of manned exploration and colonization. Will China, not Japan, US or Europe be the first to brew a bona fide “space beer”? Time will only tell.

Image: A NASA Mars greenhouse concept. Credit: NASA