Work is underway to figure out methods of growing produce in space, which is especially vital for eventual Mars colonists. Space food leaves a lot to be desired, so scientists are working on getting more variety into astronauts’ diets. They’re also working on ways to create sustainable agricultural practices, given that resupplying Earthly goods will bend, if not break, the budget. But that will require astronauts growing their own food, which raises the question of how suitable an environment is Mars (or the moon) is for growing plants. According to a study recently published in PLoS One, both Mars and the moon may be much better suited for agriculture than previously thought.
Dutch researchers planted fourteen different species of plants in soil similar in composition to that on Mars and the moon—the same soil NASA uses for simulations. The control group in the study used Earth soil from an area without many nutrients. Scientists planted mustard, tomatoes, rye, carrots, wheat, and cress into 840 different pots—20 replicas of each kind of plant species in each of the three types of soil. From there, all the subjects were kept under the same greenhouse conditions with 16 hours of light each day and temperatures of 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Researchers let them grow for 50 days.
Some, if not most of the plants in the lunar and Martian soils were able to take root and grow without any additional nutrients. 20% of the lunar soil plants were still alive at the end of the experiment. 50% of the Earth soil plants were still alive, and a whopping 65% of the plants in Martian soil were still alive at the end of the study. This is good news for aspiring Mars colonists, though less good news for would-be colonists on the moon, which has particularly dry soil with no acidity.
Certain plants were hardier than others—tomatoes, rye, carrots, and cress in particular flourished in the Martian soil, with 80% still alive at the end of the experiment. This means that it may be possible to use the native soil to grow plants—provided that it isn’t laden with heavy metals or toxic chemicals, of course, which may not kill plants but would make them dangerous to eat. Colonists would still have to figure out a way to water the plants, as well as fertilize them every now and again—both of these are elements that future studies will take up. Still, the results suggest that farmer will be on the career list for future colonists.