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The recent surge of interest in human missions to Mars has also generated considerable interest in the responses of plants to hypobaria (reduced atmospheric pressure), particularly among those in the advanced life support community. Potential for in situ resource utilization, challenges in meeting engineering constraints for mass and energy, the prospect of using lightweight plant growth structures on Mars, and the minimal literature on plant responses to low pressure all suggest much needed research in this area. However, the limited literature on hypobaria combined with previous findings on plant responses to atmospheric composition and established principles of mass transfer of gases suggest that some plants will be capable of tolerating and growing at pressures below 20 kPa; and for other species, perhaps as low as 5–10 kPa. In addition, normal and perhaps enhanced growth of many plants will likely occur at reduced partial pressures of oxygen (e.g., 5 kPa). Growth of plants at such low total and partial pressures indicates the feasibility of cultivating plants in lightweight, transparent “greenhouses" on the surface of Mars or in other extraterrestrial or extreme environment locations. There are numerous, accessible terrestrial analogs for moderately low pressure ranges, but not for very low and extremely low atmospheric pressures. Research pertaining to very low pressures has been historically restricted to the use of vacuum chambers. Future research prospects, approaches, and priorities for plant growth experiments at low pressure are considered and discussed as they apply to prospects for Martian agriculture.

Keywords: Advanced life support; Bioregenerative; Mars; Photorespiration; Photosynthesis; Reduced pressure; Transpiration

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2002

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