Gene Giacomelli, director of the University of Arizona's Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, or CEAC, shared the same challenges in growing crops as the fictitious botanist stranded on Mars in the new movie "The Martian."
The NASA-funded research is designed to develop systems for growing plant food in harsh environments such as distant planets. The CEAC created a prototype environment that provides the perfect combination of heat, light and humidity for plants will grow. Red and blue LED grow lights, producing an intense magenta cast, optimize energy and plant growth and are central to plant survival where resources are scarce.
The CEAC lunar and Martian greenhouse uses a hydroponic system to deliver water and nutrients directly to plant roots. Giacomelli theorizes that the soil on Mars could be used in a closed environment to support plant growth, if given the proper hydration and nutrient supplements.
Giacomelli says the film's stranded scientist, played by actor Matt Damon, is fortunate to have a background in mechanical engineering and botany — a rare combination "except for people coming through our educational program here at the University of Arizona's Controlled Environment Agricultural Center."