UAE prepares for Mars colony with MBR Space Settlement Challenge

Projects include mushrooms that help with recycling and sugar made from an astronaut’s breath

The UAE plans to establish the first human colony on Mars in 2117. Courtesy Dubai Media Office
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Supporting human life on Mars is still relatively far off by Earthling standards. The UAE’s manned mission is slated for 2117 and similar missions by the US or China are unlikely to happen anytime before 2050. But the Dubai Future Foundation is taking steps now to ensure the science and technology solutions necessary to thrive on the red planet are ready.

The MBR Space Settlement Challenge put up Dh2 million in seed funding for 35 scientist teams — out of 260 applicants — from across the world to develop solutions for the various challenges surrounding living in constrained environments. Among these, six teams explored technology that could be used to support sustainable food and water production on Mars, with a focus on long-term space settlements that minimise energy and resource consumption while maximising the production of nutrition, food and water. They were in Dubai this week to present their projects at the Space on Earth forum.

Fifty years ago, a scientist from an American university helped build and plant Abu Dhabi’s first greenhouse. Today, a team of Dr Merle Jensen’s proteges from the same university, the University of Arizona, is helping the UAE realise its goal of colonising Mars — and building a greenhouse on Martian soil.

"Pioneers who were headed west in covered wagons grew crops on their journey. But when they arrived at their destination, they became farmers. And farmers we will be on Mars as well," said Dr Gene Giacomelli, professor and former director of Controlled Environment Agriculture Centre at the University of Arizona, in an interview with The National.

For people to live sustainably on Mars, and to avoid replicating the waste creation that has contributed to climate change here on Earth, food production has to be as efficient as possible with the maximum amount of materials recycled. The team from the University of Arizona has a clever solution to this challenge: mushrooms.

Mushrooms are “biological recyclers” that can convert inedible waste of other plants (like stems and husks) into growing more mushrooms which have a high nutritional value.

The team theorises that growing mushrooms alongside other crops can decrease the reliance on food sent from Earth while providing a more balanced and healthier diet leading to “healthier, happier, and more productive inhabitants”, according to their proposal.

Another team from the US, Cemvita Factory, has prototyped a technology that replicates photosynthesis to turn an astronaut’s breath — made of carbon dioxide — into glucose, a building block of nutrition.

So far, the team has also received investment from a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum for carbon capture to be converted into polymers and other chemicals in the downstream business of the oil company.

But given that carbon dioxide makes up 95 per cent of the Martian atmosphere, space settlements in the future could benefit from basically the same process.

Pioneers who were headed west in covered wagons grew crops on their journey. But when they arrived at their destination, they became farmers. And farmers we will be on Mars as well

“They’ll be able to create their own oxygen, glucose and other compounds from just the air around them,” Dr Tara Karimi, co-founder and chief scientist of Cemvita Factory, said.

Dr Gisela Detrell, from the University of Stuttgart in Germany, thinks algae holds another key to survival on the Moon or Mars. Compared to plants, algae requires less water and is a good source of protein. While several algae experiments have already taken place in space, (including one of her own on the International Space Station last May), she is looking to better understand how gravity will work on growing the flora before it can be used to support astronaut survival on the Moon or Mars surface.

Taken together, stepping stones are emerging for the UAE’s path to Mars.

Dr Simonetta Di Pippo, director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, told The National that in the near-term, "the UAE will enter the select club of countries that would have sent an orbiter to Mars with a mission called Hope" which is planned for 2020 and only four other countries have done so far.

“Having sent Hazza Al Mansouri to the ISS will inspire many generations. It is a long run, but will be producing fruits for many years.”