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Could Repurposed Humanure Be a Solid Bet for Martian Farms?

Space travel is a pretty awesome human feat, isn’t it? While we’ve come a long way from the first steps on the moon, there are a number of challenges for sending humans across vast swaths of vacuum that still exist today -- not the least of which is what we’re hoping to solve with the Space Poop Challenge. Yes, that’s right, HeroX is offering $30,000 for a NASA-worthy system for spacesuits that routes human waste away from the body, hands-free. Think you can help? Great! Be sure to check out the guidelines and join the Space Poop community.   Read on to learn some interesting info about the potential for reusing human waste in space.

A Pop Culture Interpretation of Mars Living

The topic of human waste in outer space really isn’t as esoteric and unmentionable as it may seem at first.

Consider the recent blockbuster 
The Martian. In this film, based on the book by the same title, character Mark Watney – astronaut extraordinaire – becomes stranded on Mars. Watney, played by Matt Damon, has to survive for over a year all alone, about 140 million miles (225 million km) away from Earth.

If you haven't seen this great flick yet, go watch it, because here be spoilers.
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Watney has to pull a lot of MacGuyver-style moves to survive, one of which has become a bit of a hot topic: growing potatoes in the Martian soil, using his own waste (and that of his friends) as fertilizer. And he needs to eat those potatoes for 550 of our Earth days. Space is fun, right?

A lot of people are naturally curious. Can you actually grow potatoes on Mars? Is human waste a good fertilizer? Could a person survive on potatoes for that long, somehow bearing the mental anguish of eating potatoes day in and day out?

There are a few caveats, but it turns out the potato poop science in The Martian is actually quite accurate. So take notes, just in case you find yourself alone and hungry on the Red Planet.

Do You Want Fries With That?

Watney isn't just an astronaut – he's also a botanist. “The greatest botanist on this planet,” as he proclaims.

When he finds himself alive but alone, he realizes that he'll need to survive for a long time. He has a lot of pressing problems, like living in a habitat designed for only 31 days of use, but if he manages to solve his immediate concerns he'll eventually run out of food. He calculates that he has around 300 days worth of food, as long as he doesn't chow down.

But he does have one thing going for him – potatoes. So our first question is, can a person actually live on potatoes for that long? Even on Earth?

The answer to that is: probably not. Potatoes contain a very wide range of nutrients, and are known as a famine-food for that reason, but eventually you'd run into some problems, like a lack of Vitamins A and E.

Mark Watney, however, has a stash of NASA-grade vitamins and supplements to boost his diet. So it's plausible that these, combined with the potatoes, could keep him going for quite a while.

Image from The Martian (2016)

One part that seems a bit fishy, however, is the amount he eats. When things start to get tight, Watney is down to eating around 1 potato per day. That doesn't really seem enough to keep him going, despite the fact that Mars only has about 37.5% of Earth's gravity, so he'd expend less energy to move stuff around.

There was a guy who ate potatoes every day for 2 months, but he had to eat 20 per day to sate himself.

Can You Even Grow Anything On Mars? In Your Own Poop, No Less?

So it might be possible to live off potatoes and supplements, but could we actually go to Mars and grow potatoes in human feces?

The thought raises a few concerns. We don't usually grow things in human waste, do we? And what are the chances that the soil on Mars works fine for Earth plants, as long as you poop on it? If that were the case, everyone would be doing it, right?

You might be surprised at the answers to these questions.

Human feces are actually used as fertilizer in the U.S., among many other countries. Today it's known euphemistically as “biosolids,” but the older, traditional name is night soil. About 50% of the biosolids produced in the U.S. are returned to farmland, in fact, to aid in the growth of crops.

Of course, human waste needs to be treated first, a process that takes quite a while. People have pointed to this as a possible plot hole in the movie, but there's something special about this particular scenario.

In The Martian, much like on the International Space Station, the crew's feces are stored away, treated to kill anything in it, and further sterilized by exposing it to the vacuum of space. So it's basically sterile, and could theoretically be used as a rich source of nutrients in soil without worrying about exposure to pathogens.

But on Mars? It turns out that it will be possible to farm Mars, as a team of scientists at Wageningen University in the Netherlands recently proved. Using soil designed to simulate the composition of Mars, as developed by NASA, the team successfully grew radishes, peas, rye, and tomatoes. The plants did not contain dangerous levels of heavy metals, one of the chief concerns.

 Those are some of the biggest issues facing anyone trying to grow potatoes in their own feces, on Mars. It wouldn't be easy, but it does seem like it might be possible. As long as a plot-driven accident doesn't destroy your garden and force you to struggle even further against even worse odds, of course (much to the suspense of your audience).

The Space Poop Challenge

Do you think a lot about space-related poop science? Or poop-related space science? Either way, you should check out the $30,000 Space Poop Challenge. This competition is to help astronauts, by creating a system for spacesuits that routes human waste away from the body, hands-free. Do you have what it takes? Check out the challenge today!

comments
  • Andree Caron April 14, 2020, 2:07 p.m. PDT
    I thought poop was contained in a can, which isn't vacuumed sealed nor sterile. They change it every 10 days when it's full of poop in hand closed bags. They then put it in the rockets that bring up new food and materials every week and simply launch it into the atmosphere where it burns up.
    So, the part where the poop is vacuumed sealed sterilized on Mars is made up by Andy Weir for plot purposes. Although quite possible and probable, it isn't currently used (as far as I've been able to acertain so far).
  • UNSTABLE Jan. 10, 2019, 2 p.m. PST
    I am from an FLL team at my middle school, and this just happens to be our project for the competition! We have an Idea for a section right next to the solid waste storage that would compost the human waste and would eventually be turned into fertilizer to be used for growing Kale and Sunflower seeds, which give the body its calcium intake better. Calcium is needed in space to keep the bones strong when they may get weak if not exercised or fed properly. This might sound great, but we need some more specifics on the design. Is there anybody at NASA we could call? Ideas?
  • Fatemeh Ghodrati Dec. 12, 2016, 3:24 p.m. PST
    My model image 2
    Hi herox,
    I think i solve your space poop challenge problem,here
    explains:
    I designed this underwear for astronauts on space missions for 6 or more days spent outside the space station.

    - This underwear with three different buttons on the screen that is separate works.
    (It can be like a watch or bracelet, that can work with it is very simple,
    This bracelet or watch with a magnetism that can be attached to spacesuit or astronauts gloves.)

    - The first button (can be yellow or orange For the convenience of astronauts)
    Underwear opens with an upward movement or pulls.
    To urinate through a pipe or wire is led out of the spacesuit.
    Urine using with systems that are outside of spacesuit Or for example can be dry ice, or can be vaporized.
    And after urination, Pressing the same button, underwear returns back to The first mode.

    - The second button (can be black For the convenience of astronauts)
    Underwear with one move to the back,
    Or opens from the back For defecation,
    should be used to pipe kind to clean yourself or don't take dirty from defecation.
    After defecation, like Martian movie,
    First, dried And after was removed from the pipe And to be led out of the space suit, And can be daily dried and turned into powder.

    - Outside the space suit designed reservoir in the lower back,
    Separate pipes of the urine and defecation, as well as period,
    Be directed to the separate reservoir, It includes three reservoir.

    (This pipes can be The powerful suction system urine and defecation Be directed to the out of spacesuit to separate reservoir on back lower for astronauts comfort.)

    - The Third button (can be red color For the convenience of astronauts)
    The third button is like the first and second, The difference is that underwear is completely open to the disposal of reservoir and urine are used together.

    - For lady's period time, this underwear can act as like as urination performance has been explained in top, But with steady performance for three to six days and turned to frozen or dried blood on a daily basis.

    Outside the space suit designed one reservoir in the lower back,
    Separate two pipes,
    First, on front of underwear for urine and second pipe from the back for defecation,and can be three pipe for lady's period time,
    Be directed to the separate reservoir, It includes three reservoir.
    And this pipes can be designed very well Without having to any touch to astronaut's body or legs Be directed to the out of spacesuit to separate reservoir on back lower for astronauts comfort.

    (This pipes can be The powerful suction system urine and defecation Be directed to the out of spacesuit to separate reservoir on back lower for astronauts comfort.)

    The pipes with attached the wire or something like that like Dentist water pressure pipe, can be Cleaner the bladder or back with normal pressure with for example liquid gel cleaner.

    I hope i can help to you and dear astronauts and the future.
  • Fatemeh Ghodrati Dec. 8, 2016, 4:22 p.m. PST
    Hi herox,
    I think i solve your space poop challenge problem,here

    I designed this underwear for astronauts on space missions for 6 or more days spent outside the space station.

    - This underwear with three different buttons on the screen that is separate works.
    (It can be like a watch or bracelet, that can work with it is very simple,
    This bracelet or watch with a magnetism that can be attached to spacesuit or astronauts gloves.)

    - The first button (can be yellow or orange For the convenience of astronauts)
    Underwear opens with an upward movement or pulls.
    To urinate through a pipe or wire is led out of the spacesuit.
    Urine using with systems that are outside of spacesuit Or for example can be dry ice, or can be vaporized.
    And after urination, Pressing the same button, underwear returns back to The first mode.

    - The second button (can be black For the convenience of astronauts)
    Underwear with one move to the back,
    Or opens from the back For defecation,
    should be used to pipe kind to clean yourself or don't take dirty from defecation.
    After defecation, like Martian movie,
    First, dried And after was removed from the pipe And to be led out of the space suit, And can be daily dried and turned into powder.

    - Outside the space suit designed reservoir in the lower back,
    Separate pipes of the urine and defecation, as well as period,
    Be directed to the separate reservoir, It includes three reservoir.

    (This pipes can be The powerful suction system urine and defecation Be directed to the out of spacesuit to separate reservoir on back lower for astronauts comfort.)

    - The Third button (can be red color For the convenience of astronauts)
    The third button is like the first and second, The difference is that underwear is completely open to the disposal of reservoir and urine are used together.

    - For lady's period time, this underwear can act as like as urination performance has been explained in top, But with steady performance for three to six days and turned to frozen or dried blood on a daily basis.

    Outside the space suit designed one reservoir in the lower back,
    Separate two pipes,
    First, on front of underwear for urine and second pipe from the back for defecation,and can be three pipe for lady's period time,
    Be directed to the separate reservoir, It includes three reservoir.
    And this pipes can be designed very well Without having to any touch to astronaut's body or legs Be directed to the out of spacesuit to separate reservoir on back lower for astronauts comfort.

    (This pipes can be The powerful suction system urine and defecation Be directed to the out of spacesuit to separate reservoir on back lower for astronauts comfort.)

    The pipes with attached the wire or something like that like Dentist water pressure pipe, can be Cleaner the bladder or back with normal pressure with for example liquid gel cleaner.

    I hope i can help to you and dear astronauts and the future,
    I love you all, fatemeh
  • JOEMANGO Dec. 7, 2016, 5:55 a.m. PST
    Existe una infinidad de estudios sobre el humanare que permiten su uso extensivo con simples pasos previos de tratamiento para eliminar patogenos no deseados. No se requiere un exceso de tecnologia simplemente tener los recintos apropiados para el reciclaje, compostaje y utilizacion para crear el ciclo completo que permita usar en cualquier suelo con la minima composicion de iones calcio, silicio, hierro y otros que permiten el crecimiento de cualquier especie vegetal con una pequeña adicion del elemento magico H2O que tambien proviene del reciclaje de los liquidos corporales, aparte de otros metodos de obtencion de agua manejables.
  • Deleted Dec. 3, 2016, 11:41 p.m. PST
    [deleted]
  • Deleted Dec. 3, 2016, 1:02 p.m. PST
    for used feces as fertilizer may be is necessary kild bacterie coliformebefore using same to animal eat
  • Deleted Dec. 2, 2016, 12:59 p.m. PST
    [deleted]
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