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December 11, 2018

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Chinese scientists eye transforming Mars after successful sand control

HERDSMEN in Dalad Banner of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, north China, have long suffered from sandstorms.

During the worst desertification in the 1980s, more than 100 families had to leave their homes in Jiefangtan Town.

But more than a decade ago, scientists came and started spraying algae on the dunes. The sand gradually turned into soil, attracting moss, lichens, grass and animals. The soil became thicker, and vegetation returned.

Algae can withstand temperatures up to 60 degrees centigrade, and ultraviolet radiation and drought, said Liu Yongding, a researcher at the Wuhan-based Institute of Hydrobiology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who has studied algae for more than 40 years.

Liu led his team to select the best algae species from samples collected across China, and developed innovative technologies.

“It takes 100 years to form a centimeter of fertile soil naturally and 2,000 years to form 20cm,” he said.

“It would take many generations to recover if a piece of arable land was lost. We are happy that we found a way to turn sand into soil several centimeters thick that can grow plants in a few years.”

Liu believes his technology can be used in desert areas outside China, including countries participating the Belt and Road Initiative. And his research has attracted scientists from Europe and the United States.

Liu has also set his sights on the sky. Since 1987, his team has studied algae to support astronauts’ long stay in space.

They have carried out experiments on six of China’s returnable satellites, and biological experiments on the Shenzhou spacecraft.

They have worked with German scientists to research the life support system on the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft. They will also carry out experiments on China’s future space station.

Wang Gaohong, another researcher at the Institute of Hydrobiology, said algae have significant advantages in building a life support system. The oxygen generated by higher plants of about 15 square meters is equivalent to that produced by just a square meter of algae. It can also provide protein for astronauts.

“Also in near space, at an altitude of about 20km to 100km, the environment is similar to that of Mars,” Wang said.

“Our space biology research will help us understand possible life forms on Mars.”

Liu has an ambitious goal — letting algae pioneer human migration to Mars.

He first publicly proposed using algae to transform the environment of Mars about 15 years ago.

“The deserts on the Earth have a similar environment to the Martian environment,” he said.

“We might use our knowledge of desert algae to transform the environment and help construct a human base on the red planet.”

Science fiction writers and scientists put forward the idea of transforming Mars a long time ago, but there was no practical way to realize it.

Liu’s research made the idea conceivable, said Wang.

“If one day we have to leave the Earth because of pollution, and build another home on another planet, algae might be our saviour,” Wang said.


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