Mars And Moon Soil Can Support Crops, Team Claims
Taken from RedOrbit.Com
In one small step for man, scientists from Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands claim to have successfully grown the first crops using soils that simulate those found on Mars and the Moon.
In a University statement, the researchers revealed what they deemed to be surprising results—especially considering the first time they tried, the moon crops nearly entirely failed. This experiment was round two, which started in April of 2015.
Growing otherworldly crops
The researchers sowed 10 different crop species (tomato, rye, radish, pea, leek, spinach, garden rocket, cress, quinoa, and chives) in trays containing either Mars or Moon soil simulants or regular potting compost as a control representing Earth soil. The soil simulates were provided by NASA and represent the closest otherworldly equivalents found on earth: soil from a specific volcano in Hawaii for Mars, and soil from the desert in Arizona for the Moon.
The plants were grown in a glass house that was under constant temperature, humidity, and light conditions, as well as being under Earth atmosphere—an attempt to simulate future space conditions.
“This is because 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 researcher Dr. Wieger Wamelink.
The team also incorporated some new methods into planting these crops, after learning the hard way from the first experiment.
“We used trays instead of small pots and added organic material (fresh cut grass) to the Mars and moon soil simulant,” explained Wamelink. “This solved the problem we had with watering in the first experiment and also added manure to the soils.”
And, in October of 2015, their toil bore fruit: Of the 10 crops, they were able to harvest tomatoes, peas, rye, garden rocket, radishes, and garden cress from both kinds of soils. Better yet, the amount produced was pretty stellar. Moon crop production naturally improved from the last experiment, and Mars production was slightly lower than the control Earth crops, but the difference was not statistically significant.
“That was a real surprise to us,” said Wamelink. “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.”
Of course, it appears no paper has been published on this yet, meaning these results have not been vetted by the rest of the scientific community. Further, should everything pan out, this is only a proof-of-concept idea; growing plants on Mars will likely be much more complicated.
For example, when asked what would have to be added to Martian soil to allow plants to grow, Wamelink explained in a blog post:
“Martian soil is sterile, there is no life in it (as far as we know, it is still under investigation, but I will talk about it as if there is no life). What I need are bacteria for the mineralisation of organic matter and the binding of nitrogen (N) and transformation into nitrate (NO3). Then I need fungi that would help plants with the uptake of nutrients. They live in symbiosis with the plants and enlarge the root system of the plant.
“There is no organic matter in the Martian soil, thus that has to be added, which can be done by using the feces of the human Martians. These feces serve as manure, as does the urine. The urine can be applied straight away, the feces have to be sterilized first because of unwanted bacteria that are present inside the human body. (Looks like The Martian got that right.)
“Above ground I will need insects for the pollination of the flowers.”
And then there is another huge, potentially deadly hurdle yet to be overcome: toxic heavy metals in the crops.
“The soils contain heavy metals like lead, arsenic and mercury and also a lot of iron,” said Wamelink. “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 and that is one of the reasons why a crowdfunding campaign has been started to finance the third experiment that will be all about food safety. The experiment should start in April 2016 with the growth of a new batch of crops including potatoes and beans. If the crops prove to be safe enough to eat, the funders will be invited for dinner where a ‘Martian meal’ will be served that includes the harvested crops; at least for those who dare!”