UA, 'The Martian' have something in common - Tucson News Now

UA, 'The Martian' have something in common

(Source: Tucson News Now) (Source: Tucson News Now)
TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

You may have seen the new hit movie "The Martian" about a botanist, played by Matt Damon, who ends up stranded on the Red Planet and has to grow his own food.

Well, science fiction is more like science fact at the University of Arizona, where scientists have Damon's character beat by more than 10 years.

University researchers have been developing and studying techniques for growing food on Mars that also have applications on Earth.

The UA's Mars Greenhouse could be the prototype that leads to greenhouses which could sustain colonies on the moon and on Mars.

A greenhouse on Mars would have to be a closed environment where everything is recycled.

However, what UA scientists are learning and developing doesn't have to wait for people to travel to Mars. 

We have our own desolate areas, natural and man-made, where this technology can save lives or at least make life better. 

For instance, the UA now has a controlled-environment greenhouse in Antarctica that provides vegetables to workers there.  

The National Science Foundation chose the UA's Controlled Environment Agriculture Center to build the greenhouse for the NSF's station there.

Use of a greenhouse like that would not be limited to the South Pole.

"This could also go to disaster sites or locations where there's no soil left or very little water and it could be plugged in, so to speak, turned on and produce fresh vegetables that you can depend on as being safe," CEAC director Dr. Gene Giacomelli said.

These scientists are pioneers who believe there are answers to some earthly problems out in space.

There are many examples of NASA's space exploration developments and inventions that have benefited people, especially in the field of health care.

"A lot of people say, why don't we solve the problems on earth first - we have a lot - instead of spending money going to space. Well, the problem is not that simple. It's just the way the human race works. We don't focus on one thing. We focus on everything," said UA Space Systems Engineering Lab director Dr. Roberto Furfaro, who also is part of the Mars Greenhouse team.

Furfaro said we should remember the pioneers who set out from Europe and discovered the New World.

"We have to think in those terms. The fact that we discovered another nation changed completely the history of our world, our ability to solve problems. And I do believe that the next step will be functionally in the bringing back and solving problems here on Earth by going out there," he said.

Giacomelli has both seen the film, "The Martian," and read the book.

He said there were a few things that could not have possibly worked.

For instance, Giacomelli said, the plants needed more light. And there's no way Damon's character, Mark Watney, could have used unprocessed urine to water the plants.   

However, he said he liked the book and the film.

"It was science fiction, of course, but it brought a lot of real science and engineering to all the people - young people particularly. It should have excited a lot of people about the ingenuity, the capabilities that we have for living on another planet 10, 20 years from now. But the real exciting part to me was that we're working on much of what Mark Watney had to do so he could survive. We're doing that in our laboratory," Giacomelli said.   

The big question is: When will a human set foot on Mars?

Scientists say that, with a long-range plan and consistent funding, perhaps in 20 years.

It's would be about 50 years for a colony to be established there, if the money is there.

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