Solar Energy-Powered Hydroponics Could Feed Mars Colonies, Elon Musk Says

Elon Musk has a grand plan to feed the first humans on Mars. The SpaceX founder explained in an interview published Monday that the fledgling first colonies could use hydroponics to grow plants. These installations would likely sit inside the specially-built habitats, a necessary component of Martian life before terraforming occurs.

“You essentially have solar power — unfoiled solar panels on the ground, feed that to underground hydroponics, either underground or shielded by wires, dirt,” Musk told Popular Mechanics. “So then you can be sure that you don’t have to worry about excessive ultraviolet radiation or a solar storm or something like that. Really pretty straightforward. You could just use Earth hydroponics. Earth hydroponics will work fine.”

SpaceX is on the verge of accomplishing one of Musk’s founding goals: to send humans to Mars, establish a colony, and fuel a new space race. At the International Aeronautical Conference in Adelaide, Australia in September 2017, Musk explained his plan to send two fully-reusable unmanned ships to Mars, each carrying 100 tons each, followed by two further unmanned ships alongside two ships carrying the first human travelers. The main goals would be setting up a propellant production plant, collecting one ton of ice per day to create new fuel, while also establishing basic life support systems.

Hydroponics essentially involves growing plants in a solution filled with nutrients, making direct contact with the roots, instead of using soil. It’s been used to grow salad in London bomb shelters and grow plants efficiently in New York. The idea has even played a role in preparing billionaires for the apocalypse.

NASA's vision of hydroponics on Mars.
NASA's vision of hydroponics on Mars.

Musk is not the first to suggest using hydroponics on Mars. Researchers from the University of Arizona demonstrated in 2015 a greenhouse that produces sweet potatoes and strawberries that combines water and nutrients, offering yields 10 times higher than a regular field. The researchers noted that it’s a much better method than the one used by Matt Damon’s character in The Martian, which uses a haphazard system of feces and water mixed with Martian soil. NASA, which is also researching hydroponics, notes that the method outlined in the film probably wouldn’t work too well because the soil lacks a lot of necessary nutrients.

Hydroponics could ensure the first human visitors get a healthy dose of green veg, but Musk has his eye on the future. His previously stated goal of transforming Mars’ atmosphere to make it more hospitable to human life, an idea that has received some skepticism, could enable humans a greater degree of freedom.

“For having an outdoorsy, fun atmosphere, you’d probably want to have some faceted glass dome, with a park, so you can walk around without a suit,” Musk said. “Eventually, if you terraform the planet, then you can walk around without a suit. But for say, the next 100-plus years, you’ll have to have a giant pressurized glass dome.”

While the first two Starships were originally set to make their way to Mars in 2022, Musk has since suggested that the launch will follow the company’s 2023 mission to send a team of artists around the moon. From there, Musk has said the first Mars colony could take shape before 2030.

How NASA's Mars Opportunity Rover Landed on Mars
Media via NASA, SpaceX