Martian base agriculture: The effect of low gravity on water flow, nutrient cycles, and microbial biomass dynamics
The latest advances in bioregenerative strategies for long-term life support in extraterrestrial outposts such as on Mars have indicated soil-based cropping as an effective approach for waste decomposition, carbon sequestration, oxygen production, and water biofiltration as compared to hydroponics and aeroponics cropping. However, it is still unknown if cropping using soil systems could be sustainable in a Martian greenhouse under a gravity of 0.38 g. The most challenging aspects are linked to the gravity-induced soil water flow; because water is crucial in driving nutrient and oxygen transport in both liquid and gaseous phases, a gravitational acceleration lower than g = 9.806 m s -2 could lead to suffocation of microorganisms and roots, with concomitant emissions of toxic gases. The effect of Martian gravity on soil processes was investigated using a highly mechanistic model previously tested for terrestrial crops that couples soil hydraulics and nutrient biogeochemistry. Net leaching of NO3- solute, gaseous fluxes of NH 3, CO 2, N 2O, NO and N 2, depth concentrations of O 2, CO 2 and dissolved organic carbon (DOC), and pH in the root zone were calculated for a bioregenerative cropping unit under gravitational acceleration of Earth and for its homologous on Mars, but under 0.38 g. The two cropping units were treated with the same fertilizer type and rate, and with the same irrigation regime, but under different initial soil moisture content. Martian gravity reduced water and solute leaching by about 90% compared to Earth. This higher water holding capacity in soil under Martian gravity led to moisture content and nutrient concentrations that favoured the metabolism of various microbial functional groups, whose density increased by 5-10% on Mars as compared to Earth. Denitrification rates became substantially more important than on Earth and ultimately resulted in 60%, 200% and 1200% higher emissions of NO, N 2O and N 2 gases, respectively. Similarly, O 2 and DOC were consumed more rapidly in the Martian soil and resulted in about 10% increase in CO 2 emissions. More generally, Martian cropping would require 90% less water for irrigation than on Earth, being therefore favourable for water recycling treatment; in addition, a substantially lower nutrient supply from external sources such as fertilizers would not compromise nutrient delivery to soil microorganisms, but would reduce the large N gas emissions observed in this study.