Researchers successfully grow 10 veggie crops in simulated space dirt
Have you bought your ticket to Mars yet? If not, we’re guessing it’s the lack of decent salad options that’s holding you back. (Well, that or the fact that’s basically a one-way ticket). But have no fear! In an elaborately simulated Mars growing environment, Dutch researchers have harvested radishes, peas, tomatoes and seven other veggies.
The experiment is designed for future red planet residents to ensure they can be self-sufficient in the great howling void, and it’s the second one of its kind from researchers at Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands. Simulated soils were provided by NASA with the Mars stand-in coming by way of the Arizona desert. And since it’s hard to say where roving space settlers will colonize first, researchers also tested out some “moon soil” made the dirt of a Hawaiian volcanoe. It may not be an exact match, but it’s close.
The first iteration of the experiment didn’t go so well (just ask Mark Watney how easy it is to grow produce on Mars) so the researchers were both thrilled and surprised to get such an impressive crop this time around. For the second go-round they tinkered with relatively small variables like using trays instead of pots and mixing cut grass into the soil samples. But the little tweaks got big results with the “Martian soil” producing nearly as much as the Earth soil control did. (Sorry, moon lovers – the lunar harvest was roughly half as abundant as the others.)
The 10 crops – tomato, rye, radish, pea, leek, spinach, garden rocket, cress, quinoa and chives – were cultivated indoors under highly controlled growing conditions where light, humidity and temperature were regulated closely. “This is because we expect that first crop growth on Mars and moon will take place in underground rooms,” said lead researcher, Dr. Wieger Wamelink, “to protect the plants from the hostile environment including cosmic radiation.”
If you imagine the Dutch scientists having a bucolic, Alice Waters-style dinner soiree with the harvest, it’s time to kill your buzz. Mimicking outer space soils means there was lead, arsenic and mercury in their veggies – not so delicious. Luckily the next phase of the experiment is designed specifically to address those issues. The Wageningen scientists are currently crowdfunding food safety research, with the stated goal of actually growing produce on Mars within 10 to 15 years.
You might want to donate to that campaign, if for no other reason than this sweet donor reward: a “Martian dinner” using produce grown in the simulated conditions. Wamelink issued the invitation by saying, “If the crops prove to be safe enough to eat, the funders will be invited for dinner where a ‘Martian meal’ will be served that includes the harvested crops; at least for those who dare!”