Can we grow crops on the Moon? How about Mars? If you saw the movie “The Martian,” it seems you could grow potatoes on Mars with a supply of water, oxygen, and some fertilizer, but without these necessities (soil nutrients, water, oxygen) they just wouldn’t last. If we eventually want to colonize places like the Moon and Mars, finding a way to live off the land is a must. The sunshine will help, but can we really grow crops on alien soil?
As it turns out, Earth scientists have been working on this problem, by simulating the soils of the Moon and Mars and attempting to grow a variety of crops on them. After a first run of crop growth, researchers learned enough to get some surprising results from their second attempt. They used potting soil as a control and compared the amount of growth (total biomass) of plants to growth in the Mars and Moon simulants.
“The total above ground biomass produced on the Mars soil simulant was not significantly different from the potting compost we used as a control,” says researcher Dr Wieger Wamelink of Wageningen University & Research centre in the Netherlands.
The biggest difference was that they added grass to both soils before growing anything. The grass improved the delivery of water to the growing crops and provided a source of energy. Plants growing on both the Moon and Mars simulant soils flourished, and though the biomass was not as high as the control, the ability to easily alter the soil to promote growth is a huge step forward.
One major setback is that the edible crops they produced contained dangerous concentrations of heavy metals such as Arsenic, Lead, Mercury, and Iron. The next round of the experiment will attempt to improve on the current results by producing safely edible crops.
Ten different crops were grown in the Mars simulant, Moon simulant, and control soil, including tomato, radish, pea, leek, and spinach. The crops were grown with controlled temperature, humidity, light, and under Earth atmosphere composition. “This is because we expect that first crop growth on Mars and moon will take place in underground rooms to protect the plants from the hostile environment including cosmic radiation,” states Wamelink.
It’s such a fascinating result knowing that there is potential to produce viable crops on an alien world. With future experiments, we are seeing the beginnings of a unique new field: Alien Botany.