Image Credit: NASA
Certainly one of the things we will need to get very good at if we’re ever to send humans to Mars to live and study there is learn how to plant food in Martian “soil.”
The challenge comes from the fact that Mars doesn’t really have “soil.” Mars has a surface of crushed rock that’s almost sand-like, but its properties are an awful lot like the volcanic dust and debris. It lacks any nutrients or organic matter, which soil on Earth has, making it a potentially terrible planting platform for fruits and vegetables.
NASA just doesn’t know yet how that’s going to fare, so they’re beginning to experiment with planting by using Mars-like simulated dirt from Hawaii. This kind of dirt lacks the nutrients that typical soil has, so it should provide some real-world results.
“Soil, by definition, contains organics; it has held plant life, insects, worms. Mars doesn’t really have soil,” said Ralph Fritsche, the senior project manager for food production at Kennedy Space Center.
In NASA’s experimentation, 30 plant seeds were planted in Martian surface dirt simulant from Hawaii, and nothing else. At least half of those plants didn’t succeed to grow, and while they tasted the same as their nutrient-enriched counterparts that grow in Earthly soil, they had weaker and smaller roots and weren’t preforming too hot.
To compare, NASA is also planting their test subjects in nutrient-enriched simulant and Earth soil to have a control variable, as well as a catalyst. It’s hoped that the catalyst, which would be the nutrient additives in this case, might help make the simulant more habitable by the plants.
If the nutrient boost helps plant growth any, then it could be feasible for astronauts to utilize Martian surface dirt, fortified with nutrients, to plant their own food. If not, then we’ll have to figure something else out.
There is, however, an additional challenge. Martian surface dirt is believed to not only lack the necessary nutrients, but it may also have contaminants that could degrade the food quality of anything we grow there.
This is certainly a challenge that would need to be overcome, but first we have the preliminary hump of ensuring we can actually grow in nutrient-less dirt to begin with before we can start coming up with ways to clear the contaminants.
The testing hasn’t been completed yet, as the test program aims to try growing all kinds of foods that NASA astronauts may attempt to grow and eat while they’re on the red planet, including but not limited to Chinese cabbage, dwarf peppers, kale, snow peas, and tomatoes.