Skip to main content

Scientists successfully grow peas, tomatoes, radishes, and more in simulated Martian soil

martial soil food crop martian radish
Winger Wamelink of Wageningen UR
Scientists using a simulated Martian soil to grow food made a surprising discovery. After a discouraging first trial in which many of the food plants died, a team of researchers at Wageningen University & Research Centre in the Netherlands conducted a second experiment and were able to grow ten different crop species in both Martian and moon soil substitutes. The growth was so good that it rivaled the growth of the same plants in compost. These results are exciting as they bring us a step closer to the ultimate goal of being able to grow food on Mars, a critical part of any future Mars settlement.

The Mars and moon soil simulants were provided by NASA, which developed the artificial soils to mimic their celestial counterparts as closely as possible. The Mars soil substitute originated from a Hawaiian volcano, while the moon soil came from an Arizona desert. In the first round of studies, the researchers used the simulated soil without any amendments and grew the plants in small pots. They struggled with watering the plants and recorded weak growth, especially in the moon-simulated soil. At the end of these first experiments, all of the moon-grown plants had died.

Related Videos

In the second round of experiments, the team replaced the pots with small trays, which often are used to grow seedlings before planting. They also added a small amount of organic material (fresh cut grass and manure) to the moon and the Martian soil substitutes. They began the experiment in April 2015, planting ten different crop species (tomato, rye, radish, pea, leek, spinach, garden rocket, cress, quinoa and chives) that were cultivated in a greenhouse. The greenhouses were designed to simulate the underground growing chambers Martian settlers may use. The Martian and Moon-soil plants were grown alongside compost-grown plants, which served as a control.

Winger Wamelink of Wageningen UR
Winger Wamelink of Wageningen UR

Researchers harvested the crops in October 2015, weighing their biomass to compare growth. Not only did the researchers successfully grow tomatoes, peas, rye, garden rocket, radish and garden cress in the Martian simulated soil; the yields of these crops were similar to the yields recorded for earth-based compost. “The total above ground biomass produced on the Mars soil simulant was not significantly different from the potting compost we used as a control,” said researcher Dr Wieger Wamelink.

Researchers were pleased with the outcome. “It shows that the Mars soil simulant has great potential when properly prepared and watered,” said Wamelink. Though the results are encouraging, the researchers still have a few more obstacles to conquer before they can use the crops as a food source. The biggest stumbling block is the possible presence of heavy metals in the plants due to the composition of the soils, which contain detectable levels of lead, arsenic and mercury. The researchers are conducting a third round of studies that will begin this spring. The goal of this upcoming experiment is to grow edible food with little to no heavy metal contamination.  The resulting plants will be prepared and served as a “Martian Meal” to the individuals and groups who are funding this project.

Editors' Recommendations

The next big thing in science is already in your pocket
A researcher looks at a protein diagram on his monitor

Supercomputers are an essential part of modern science. By crunching numbers and performing calculations that would take eons for us humans to complete by ourselves, they help us do things that would otherwise be impossible, like predicting hurricane flight paths, simulating nuclear disasters, or modeling how experimental drugs might effect human cells. But that computing power comes at a price -- literally. Supercomputer-dependent research is notoriously expensive. It's not uncommon for research institutions to pay upward of $1,000 for a single hour of supercomputer use, and sometimes more, depending on the hardware that's required.

But lately, rather than relying on big, expensive supercomputers, more and more scientists are turning to a different method for their number-crunching needs: distributed supercomputing. You've probably heard of this before. Instead of relying on a single, centralized computer to perform a given task, this crowdsourced style of computing draws computational power from a distributed network of volunteers, typically by running special software on home PCs or smartphones. Individually, these volunteer computers aren't particularly powerful, but if you string enough of them together, their collective power can easily eclipse that of any centralized supercomputer -- and often for a fraction of the cost.

Read more
Why AI will never rule the world
image depicting AI, with neurons branching out from humanoid head

Call it the Skynet hypothesis, Artificial General Intelligence, or the advent of the Singularity -- for years, AI experts and non-experts alike have fretted (and, for a small group, celebrated) the idea that artificial intelligence may one day become smarter than humans.

According to the theory, advances in AI -- specifically of the machine learning type that's able to take on new information and rewrite its code accordingly -- will eventually catch up with the wetware of the biological brain. In this interpretation of events, every AI advance from Jeopardy-winning IBM machines to the massive AI language model GPT-3 is taking humanity one step closer to an existential threat. We're literally building our soon-to-be-sentient successors.

Read more
The best hurricane trackers for Android and iOS in 2022
Truck caught in gale force winds.

Hurricane season strikes fear into the hearts of those who live in its direct path, as well as distanced loved ones who worry for their safety. If you've ever sat up all night in a state of panic for a family member caught home alone in the middle of a destructive storm, dependent only on intermittent live TV reports for updates, a hurricane tracker app is a must-have tool. There are plenty of hurricane trackers that can help you prepare for these perilous events, monitor their progress while underway, and assist in recovery. We've gathered the best apps for following storms, predicting storm paths, and delivering on-the-ground advice for shelter and emergency services. Most are free to download and are ad-supported. Premium versions remove ads and add additional features.

You may lose power during a storm, so consider purchasing a portable power source,  just in case. We have a few handy suggestions for some of the best portable generators and power stations available. 

Read more