Mars Farmer's Market? Scientists Determine It's Possible to Grow Vegetables in Martian and Lunar Soil

Tuesday, 22 October 2019 - 2:33PM
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Tuesday, 22 October 2019 - 2:33PM
Mars Farmer's Market? Scientists Determine It's Possible to Grow Vegetables in Martian and Lunar Soil
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Composite from Pixabay
In a breakthrough that will have science fiction fans drawing comparisons to The Martian, Dutch researchers from Wageningen University & Research successfully grew a variety of crops including arugula, radishes, leeks, tomatoes, and peas in Earth-sourced material meant to simulate Martian and lunar regolith: the dusty, rocky equivalents of soil on the two extraterrestrial bodies. Unfortunately for those who love the leafiest of leafy greens, the otherwise green-thumbed scientists were unable to grow spinach. 


Their research findings, which come in the wake of China's partially successful attempt to grow cotton on the moon, were published in a paper in the journal Open Agriculture.  


So where does one find soil on Earth that mimics that found beyond our atmosphere? In the case of the lunar regolith – samples of which have successfully been brought to Earth – the researchers used soil from the Arizona desert near Flagstaff, noting that the material used "resembles the actual Moon regolith closely" and observing "no important deviations from the original regolith." The Martian composition was sourced based on analysis provided by the Viking landers and the Mars Pathfinder rover and came from the Pu'u Nene cinder cone on the Island of Hawai'i. 


The savory vegetables were chosen for both their health benefits – we admonish you to eat your vegetables, including spinach – and their flavor, citing the unpalatability of food on space missions, nothing that "astronauts on the ISS often complain about the taste of their food and spicy crops may therefore be a welcome addition to their diet."


That said, not all soils performed equally. The scientists noted that of the three materials (the two regoliths and an organic soil used as a control sample for Earth), the pH of the "nutrient-poor" lunar regolith was so high as to be potentially problematic. Moreover, the regoliths were only able to hold 30% water, compared to the control's 100%. "The total biomass production per tray was highest for the Earth control and Mars soil simulant and differed significantly from Moon soil simulant," the researchers wrote. "The seeds produced by three species were tested for germination (radish, rye and cress). The germination on Moon soil simulant was significantly lower in radish than for the Earth control soil." 


If you're planning on starting a farm off-planet, you'll want to stick with Mars. 



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