The soil on Mars may be appropriate for cultivating food crops – this is the prediction of a study by plant ecologist Wieger Wamelink of Wageningen UR. This would prove highly practical if we ever decide to send people on a one-way trip to the red planet. After all, if we are going to live anywhere in outer space in the future Mars stands a good chance of being the place.
In an exclusive pilot experiment Wieger tested the growth of 14 plant varieties on artificial Mars soil over 50 days. NASA collected the soil based on the volcanic soil of Hawaii. To his surprise, the plants grew well; some even flowered. “I had expected the germination process to work, but I thought the plants would die due to a lack of nutrients,” Wieger explains. The soil analysis showed, however, that Mars soil contains more nutrients than expected. In addition to phosphorus and iron oxides, the scientist found nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient.
NASA, the US space agency, is directing the pioneering experiment together with Lima’s International Potato Center (CIP).
Peru is the country with the greatest diversity of potatoes in the world, with some 3,800 types, differing in size, shape, colour, skin, pulp, texture and taste, all of which have their place in Peruvian cuisine
NASA has teamed up with the International Potato Center (CIP) in an effort to find out if the potato will be part of the Mars mission.
The collaboration will put 100 different varieties of potatoes through a series of tests to see if its resilience is enough to survive the harsh Martian conditions. This effort will also help find a plant that can feed those here on Earth affected by famine.
“How better to learn about climate change than by growing crops on a planet that died 2 billion years ago?” said Joel Ranck, CIP Head of Communications. “We need people to understand that if we can grow potatoes in extreme conditions like those on Mars, we can save lives on Earth.”
They will cultivate a hundred selected varieties already subjected to rigorous evaluation in extreme, Mars-like conditions that could eventually pave the way to building a dome on the Red Planet for farming the vegetable.
The selection was made from a total of 4,500 varieties registered at CIP, a non-profit research facility that aims to reduce poverty and achieve food security.
Of the selected candidates, 40 are native to the Andes Mountains, conditioned to grow in different ecological zones, withstand sudden climate changes and reproduce in rocky, arid terrain.
The other 60 are genetically modified varieties able to survive with little water and salt. They are also immune to viruses.
Those that pass the tests must meet a final criterion—they must be able not only to grow well on Mars but also reproduce in large quantities.
Researchers will replicate Martian conditions by using soil from the Pampas de La Joya Desert in Peru and altering the atmospheric conditions in a lab.
“We’re almost 100 percent certain that many of the selected potatoes will pass the tests,” Julio Valdivia-Silva, a Peruvian NASA astrobiologist, said in a press release.
The potatoes will have to survive more than the Mars conditions, though. The study will also look at how certain potato plants handle the freezing, which will take place during a Mars trip to prevent germination. The plants will then be thawed to see if the potatoes can survive to be planted on the foreign planet. The final test will be sending the potatoes into space via a CubeSat to see if they can grow in a low-gravity environment.
They’re confident the potatoes will be able to survive.
According to the scientists, the research has a lot of potential and will provide a wealth of knowledge which may also be applicable here on earth. Research into the cultivation of plants in difficult conditions is not only relevant to future inhabitants of Mars, but also to those who wish to remain on the blue planet. Wieger: ‘Mars soil consists of volcanic rock. If we learn to bring it into cultivation, we can use the knowledge to cultivate crops on difficult soils here on earth.” Insights into a more effective recycling of water, gas and nutrients and the closing of cycles are also possible. The development of high-tech automated and optimized cultivation systems, sensors that continuously monitor the needs of plants, and plant cultivation in low light conditions are also an important spin-off of the project.