Researchers at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands have produced crops in Mars and Moon soil simulators developed by NASA. Ecologist Wieger Wamelink and his colleagues cultivated 10 different crops including garden cress, rocket, tomato, radish, rye, quinoa, spinach, chives, peas and leek. Nine of the crops grew well and edible parts were harvested from them, with spinach being the exception.
The seeds produced by three species (radish, rye and garden cress) were tested successfully for germination.
The article, “Crop growth and viability of seeds on Mars and Moon soil simulants,” was published in the journal ‘Open Agriculture’ last year.
The team produced their simulant soil by grading the particles of rock into different sizes and mixing them in proportions that match rover analysis of the Martian soil.
The soils were initially developed so rovers and spacesuits could be tested on Earth to see how well they handled the surface materials of Mars and the Moon. Few thought they could actually be farmed.
Dr Wamelink said there is no difference between his “Martian crops” and those grown in local soil, and was even “impressed by the tomatoes’ sweetness,” BBC Science Focus Magazine reveals.
The team is now looking to improve crop yields by infusing the simulation Mars soil with nitrogen-rich human urine – which will be readily available during crewed missions.
They are not alone in their attempts.
Professor Ed Guinan and Alicia Eglin, from Villanova University in Pennsylvania, are leading the Red Thumbs project using earthworm farms due to the animal’s ability to release nitrogen through their burrowing and feeding.
She told the BBC: “It’s a baseline, but probably not something that we can generalise to any location on the Mars surface.
“We are always very cautious about simulant material.
“It is very difficult in a single simulant to capture all the characteristics of the Martian surface.”
But there is still hope.
On July 30, NASA launched its Perseverance Rover from Cape Canaveral to explore the ancient river delta deposits in Mars’ Jezero Crater.
The rover will collect samples of rocks and soil and store them in preparation for a potential future robotic mission to return them to Earth for analysis.
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