Research study finds we should be able to grow plants and crops on Mars, the moon

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Sep 10, 2014

Though we’re still figuring out how to actually get humans safely to Mars, scientists are looking a few steps ahead to determine if we’ll be able to grow food once we get there. Turns out the answer is yes.

A team of researchers is conducting a large-scale study in the Netherlands to determine whether and how plants will grow in Martian and lunar soil, by utilizing soil simulant designed to mimic the soil conditions on the nearby heavenly bodies. 

The Mars simulant soil is retrieved from a volcanic cone in Hawaii and has a chemical composition similar to the Mars dirt the Viking 1 lander analyzed. The Moon simulant comes from volcanic ash deposits near Flagstaff, Ariz., meant to match the lunar dust NASA has studied. Believe it or not, you can actually buy the stuff yourself right here.

So how’d it go? Surprisingly well, it turns out. The team picked up a ton of simulant soil and planted several different plants to see what would survive and how it would grow. The team planted 840 pots' worth of plants, ranging from carrots to wheat, and the results were promising enough to show that future space explorers should be able to grow their own food once they finally set up shop in the stars.

Here’s an excerpt from the findings, recapped by Popular Science:

“Our results show that in principle it is possible to grow crops and other plant species in Martian and Lunar soil simulants. However, many questions remain…” such as how much water can the soils hold (because the ones in this study seemed to dry out pretty quickly) and how do gravity, light, and other conditions on other worlds affect the plants’ ability to grow?

This is obviously awesome news, but there are still a few problems to figure out. For one, the simulant soil still contains traces of plant-helping nitrates and ammonium, so that skews the results. But the team notes that this can be addressed by nitrogen-fixing bacteria or fertilization methods (i.e. using human feces. Seriously).

Caveats or not, this is a huge step in the right direction toward creating a sustainable lunar or Martian habitat. Plus, we’ll be able to eat all our veggies before heading out to explore the barren Martian landscape.

(Via Popular Science)