Geologists from the University of Georgia have begun experiments that will see them simulate the soil conditions on Mars in preparation for the eventual production of crops on the big red planet.
When astronauts finally begin their journey to Mars, they won’t be able to haul tons worth of topsoil through space, so the Georgia geologists are figuring out how to best make use of the soil already on the planet. They intend on learning more about the Martian soil by developing an artificial soil mixture that mimics materials found on Mars.
According to Laura Fackrell, UGA geology doctoral candidate and lead author on the study, “We want to simulate certain characteristics of materials you could easily get on Mars’ surface. Things like nutrients, salinity, pH are part of what makes the soil fertile, and understanding where Mars’ soils are at in that spectrum is key to knowing if they are viable and if not, are there feasible solutions that can be used to make them viable.”
The team of geologists is creating their artificial soil using data taken from NASA’s surface samples of loose material near the surface of Mars, or regolith as it’s more commonly known.
Despite Mars being an extremely desolate landscape, the planet does indeed contain the majority of plant essential nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium needed to sustain plant life, meaning the possibility of using its soil to grow crops might be more realistic than originally thought.
The Martian (2015) starring Matt Damon as a botanist stranded on Mars was a work of science fiction. Now UGA geologists have simulated soil conditions to see if plants really can grow on Mars. https://t.co/Q0Zc7xBcEr @UGAFranklin @UGAResearch
— UGA (@universityofga) October 27, 2020
The presence of these plant essential nutrients is a positive, but that doesn’t mean astronauts could simply plant seeds and expect them to grow, as Frackrell explained: “One problem is, their presence doesn’t mean they are accessible to plants. If you actually put a plant in the ground—just because the iron or the magnesium is there doesn’t mean the plant can actually pull it out of the soil.”
Researchers will now conduct further experiments to determine if the nutrients found in mars soil is present in sufficient quantity or if it is so high in concentration that they are toxic to plants.
“The question of whether we can use Mars soil to provide that food will go a long way toward determining the feasibility of manned missions,” said Fackrell.
Picture: NASA/Clouds AO