Since the release of the movie The Martian, based on the novel of the same title by Andy Weir, there has been an increasing interest in the possibility of growing edible crops on Mars soil. In the film, Matt Damon’s character successfully cultivates potatoes while marooned on Mars, a feat that seems impossible but actually has good science to back it up. Due to the recent push to colonize Mars, scientists have been working hard to make these scenes from The Martian a reality. And this week has brought a huge success.
According to UPI, an experiment was conducted at Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands to determine if crops could be grown on simulated Martian soil, chemically constructed to resemble the surface of Mars. After a disappointing first experiment, the Dutch scientists managed to successfully grow tomatoes, peas, garden rocket, radish, garden cress, and rye from the Mars soil simulant. Even more exciting, the Mars soil proved to be nearly as bountiful as Earth soil.
“The total above-ground biomass produced on the Mars soil simulant was not significantly different from the potting compost we used as a control,” said Dr. Wieger Wamelink, who helped with the experiment.
Of course, the Mars soil had to be treated in certain ways to make it more hospitable to crops that have evolved to grow on Earth. This includes removing the perchlorates, a type of salt found in Mars soil that is toxic to many living things. NASA has joined many scientists in researching the possibilities of agriculture on Mars and has an entire page devoted to the idea.
“In reality, the soil on Mars actually does have the nutrients plants would need to survive on Mars!” NASA reports. “There may not be the right amount of nutrients depending on where astronauts land on the Red Planet, so fertilizers may need to be added to the soil. The perchlorates in the soil would be leached out and separated from the water.”
The team of scientists from the Netherlands did exactly that, adding plenty of water, manure, and organic matter to make the Mars soil more similar to the surface of Earth. They also conducted the same experiment using soil simulating the material found on the moon.
“We used trays instead of small pots and added organic material (fresh cut grass) to the Mars and moon soil simulant. This solved the problem we had with watering in the first experiment and also added manure to the soils.”
Skeptics and science-minded people may also realize that neither the moon nor Mars have an atmosphere suitable for plant growth. This is why scientists are planning to cultivate crops on Mars within a controlled environment, similar to the simulated atmosphere Matt Damon’s character creates within the base on Mars in The Martian.
“… we expect that first crop growth on Mars and moon will take place in underground rooms to protect the plants from the hostile environment including cosmic radiation,” said Wamelink.
Of course there is a long way to go before astronauts can head to Mars and start a farm, but these recent experiments have proven that agriculture on the red planet is not only viable, but also seems surprisingly easy. The biomass that the Mars soil yielded was nearly as healthy and plentiful as crops grown in the soil of Earth, which is an exciting prospect for an extended colony on Mars.
“That was a real surprise to us. It shows that the Mars soil simulant has great potential when properly prepared and watered. The biomass growth on the moon soil simulant was less than on both other soils, about half of the biomass. Only the spinach showed poor biomass production.”
This experiment was focused primarily on growing crops on Mars soil, not cultivating food that is safe for human consumption. More tests need to be run on the Mars crops to determine if they contain any harmful chemicals.
What do you think? Does this experiment prove there’s a chance to survive on Mars?
(Mars photo via NASA, tomatoes by Wageningen University via Facebook)