Mars is having a moment. The success of science fiction blockbusters like The Martian, combined with the real-life spaceflight ambitions of luminaries like SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and former President Barack Obama, have made the Red Planet a major target for human exploration within the next generation. But as demonstrated by astronaut Mark Watney, the protagonist of The Martian, it's one thing to voyage to Mars, but quite another to live off the land for an extended period of time.
Morgan Irons, a senior at Duke University, wants to help bridge this interplanetary gap with her newly launched company Deep Space Ecology. Founded jointly with her father Lee Grant Irons, the business aims to pioneer closed ecological systems that can support human communities in inhospitable settings, both on our own planet and others. The company aims to target a wide variety of customers including space agencies and companies, commercial farmers, Earth analog research groups, and local communities and governments.
"Our vision is a business that not only serves to help human expansion into space, but helps humans on Earth as well," Irons told me over the phone. "We commonly say that the company is making food available in space by solving food security on Earth."
"It's the environmentalist side of me," she adds. "I can't simply abandon one place and go to another. I need to help everything."
This instinct to encourage the proliferation of life in environments that are openly hostile to it guided Irons towards her current academic trajectory. She had originally matriculated at Duke to pursue biophysics and medicine, but by her sophomore year, her interests began to shift more towards environmental science and space exploration.
One winter break, while reading up on these passions, Irons came across the Soviet Union's BIOS experiments based at the Institute of Biophysics in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. Beginning in the 1960s, Russian scientists designed and constructed closed biodomes in order to road-test long-duration space habitats. Senior project scientist Nikolai Bugreyev earned the nickname "Siberian Martian" for spending a total of 13 months over several stays in the sealed BIOS-3 structure, according to The Siberian Times.
This was an "aha moment" for Irons. "It completely intrigued me," she said of the BIOS experiments. "It was very interesting. So, in the spring [of 2015], I decided to do an independent study reviewing all the research that had been done on closed ecological systems. I wrote a paper on that, and am currently working on getting it published. That's pretty much where everything started."
Armed with this new expertise, Irons began designing her own closed ecosystems, and planning experiments to evaluate the feasibility of cultivating crops in sealed environments on Mars.
After cold-calling scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for advice on procuring large amounts of simulated Martian regolith—the term for the gravelly surface rock on Mars—she was referred to the California-based materials company Syar Industries. Syar's management was interested in how her research might pertain to the company's own work, and so agreed to ship about 2,000 pounds of its faux-Mars dirt to her pro bono.
"It was a very happy day when I heard about that," she said.
With regolith in hand, Irons began learning the ropes of Martian gardening. From May to December 2016, she planted and studied two generations of plants, under the guidance of her advisor, Justin Wright of the Duke Biology Department.
The experiment included 132 potted plants, some in Syar soil and some in Earth conditions, with different water, tilling, and microbe treatments. She selected broccoli, golden peas, French sorrel, sonora wheat, and rapeseed as botanical test subjects, in part because these plants are multifunctional, resistant to colder temperatures, and do not require insects to pollinate them.
Irons is still analyzing the results of the experiment, but the general upshot is positive. "The [Syar] regolith is made of basalt sand shards and dust," she said. "Just looking at it, it ishorrifying to think: How can you go about growing plants in this? But I got it to happen, so that was good."
Indeed, Irons has become known as "the botanist" among her friends—a reference to The Martian's potato-growing Watney—though she told me that "the agronomist" would be a more fitting nickname since she is interested in building entire ecosystems.
Named Mars Epoch X3, the habitat weaves together complementary ecosystems under a transparent greenhouse canopy, while the human residential area is wedged underneath the structure in a basement bunker shielded from the harsh cosmic radiation on Mars.
No doubt it will take a few years, or even a few decades, before Irons and her growing team at Deep Space Ecology will be able to deploy such complex structures on other worlds. But even as she completes her degree this year—a double major in environmental science and biology, with a chemistry minor—Irons is laying the groundwork for testing out these concepts on Earth, for both humanitarian and scientific reasons.
"My company's working on designing, manufacturing, and testing structures to grow these plants. They can be standalone or integrated with agricultural or industrial facilities, or even residential habitation," she told me.
"We want to work with people in extreme areas and find out what they need and help them develop a system and an economy for them. We want to promote healthy living for families to be able to grow their own fresh and clean fruits and vegetables year round as well as helping with food security in locations of the world plagued by drought, famine, and poverty."
"Then, of course, we want to help with human expansion into deep spaces on Earth, Mars, and beyond," she concluded.
It's an ambitious set of goals. But if anyone can get it done, it'll be this up-and-coming deep space agronomist with a Martian green thumb.
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