The idea of forming space colonies on Mars or the moon is becoming more and more realistic with every scientific breakthrough. NASA have already planned to maintain a permanent and sustainable human presence on the big red planet by the end of 2028. But, before embarking on a mission to our neighbouring planet, scientist need to figure out a way to sustainably grow food in space.
Researchers from Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands have now managed to grow crops in both Mars and moon soil simulants, which were developed by NASA. Wieger Wamelink and his colleagues were able to successfully cultivate ten different crops from the martian soil which include: tomatoes, garden cress, rockets, radish, rye, quinoa, chives, peas, and leek. Of the ten different crops, only spinach was unable to grow.
The NASA developed soil, also known as regolith is made up of a loose mixture of dirt, dust, and other debris found on the surface of Mars and the moon. The soil simulant was then mixed with organic materials from Earth, which future astronauts will need to travel with if they intend on growing food when they reach the planet.
Along with growing crops, researchers also conducted germination experiments to see if the seeds harvested from these crops could be used to grow a new batch of vegetable, as flying in new seeds would be impractical over the long term. Both rye and cress seeds were able to germinate without any issues, however, radish only showed a 50% success rate.
While this news may seem promising, the study only looked at the possibility of growing crops in martian soil. The research team haven’t taken into consideration how solar radiation and extreme hot or cold weather would effect the crops. Other possibilities for growing food in space could include hydroponics, which only requires water for cultivation, or aeroponics, which involves growing plans in mid-air and spray them with the required nutrients.
“We were thrilled when we saw the first tomatoes ever grown on Mars soil simulant turning red. It meant that the next step towards a sustainable closed agricultural ecosystem had been taken,” said Wieger Wamelink in De Gruyter.