Scientists Just Grew Ten Different Crops in Mars-Equivalent Soil

Wednesday, 09 March 2016 - 1:03PM
Astrobiology
Mars
Wednesday, 09 March 2016 - 1:03PM
Scientists Just Grew Ten Different Crops in Mars-Equivalent Soil
Could we be one step closer to a viable plan for a Mars colony? Researchers from the Netherlands have performed an experiment in which they attempted to grow crops in Mars-equivalent soil, and managed to grow no less than ten different edible species.

For the experiment, the researchers used a Mars soil simulant from NASA, which originates from a Hawaiian volcano and imitates the chemical composition of Martian soil as closely as possible. After learning from a first, less successful experiment, the scientists added organic material like grass and manure (just like Mark Watney!) to the simulant, and found that several crops were able to thrive, including tomato, rye, radish, pea, leek, spinach, garden rocket, cress, quinoa, and chive. The Mars soil yielded slightly fewer crops than Earth soil, but not to a statistically significant degree.

Opening quote
"The total above ground biomass produced on the Mars soil simulant was not significantly different from the potting compost we used as a control," lead researcher Wieger Wamelink from Wageningen University & Research Centre told Science Daily. "That was a real surprise to us. It shows that the Mars soil simulant has great potential when properly prepared and watered."
Closing quote

And while many are advocating that NASA focus on traveling to the Moon before setting their sights on Mars, this experiment seemed to indicate that Mars is a much more viable prospect for colonization. The scientists were able to grow the same crops in the lunar simulant, which came from an Arizonian desert, but the yield was significantly less, with spinach in particular struggling to survive in the lunar-equivalent soil.

The results of this experiment sound groundbreaking, but there are a few caveats before we strap on our spacesuits and head to the Red Planet. First, the study just came out, so it is not yet peer-reviewed, and while the soil accurately simulated extraterrestrial soil, none of the other hostile conditions on Mars or the Moon were replicated, including cosmic radiation, extremely high temperatures, or extremely low temperatures.

The researchers explained that they were laboring under the assumption that Mars settlers would grow plants in an underground or otherwise sealed-off room to protect the plants from the harsh Martian environment (again, just like Mark Watney), which makes sense. However, the biggest problem is that the plants themselves aren't actually edible, since they grew in soil with elements that are toxic to human beings. 

Opening quote
"The soils contain heavy metals like lead, arsenic and mercury and also a lot of iron. If the components become available for the plants, they may be taken up and find their way into the fruits, making them poisonous. Further research on this is necessary."
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The scientists are currently crowdfunding in order to perform more research, and discover a way to grow these plants in Martian soil without becoming too toxic to be eaten. So we still have a long way to go, but this was undeniably an exciting step forward in our Journey to Mars.
Science
Space
Astrobiology
Mars

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