Growing Food On Mars Difficult Than ‘The Martian’ Made It Look

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Most of us have witnessed the epic tale of survival - The Martian, where Matt Damon's character astronaut Mark Watney gets stranded on Mars during a mission. He plans his survival by growing potatoes on the Martian soil fertilized using feces of fellow astronauts.

 
Growing Food On Mars Difficult Than ‘The Martian’ Made It Look

While the movie is based on a fiction novel, growing crops could be a reality in the near future. Astronauts can opt for farming on the Red Planet to trim down their reliance on resupply missions. However, new lab experiments show that farming on Mars won't be as easy as simply planting crops and fertilizing them with human waste.

Scientists used three kinds of fake Mars dirt and planted crops in them. To replicate the Martian soil accurately one of the samples was made using volcanic rock, clays, and salts that NASA's Curiosity rover has seen on Mars. While the crops survived in the natural soils, the synthetic dirt failed to show any signs of growth.

"It's not surprising at all that as you get [dirt] that's more and more accurate, closer to Mars, that it gets harder and harder for plants to grow in it," said Kevin Cannon, planetary scientist, Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo. This "tells you that if you want to grow plants on Mars using soil, you're going to have to put in a lot of work to transform that material into something that plants can grow in," he added.

Biochemist Andrew Palmer and his team at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne planted lettuce and A. thaliana seeds in fake Martian dirt at 22 Celsius and about 70 percent humidity. The seeds grew in natural dirt but failed to germinate in the synthetic dirt. "We would grow up plants under hydroponic-like conditions, and then we would transfer them" to the artificial dirt, Palmer says.

 

The team suspects that the high pH of 9.5 of the synthetic dirt is the problem. The other two soils have a pH value of around 7. After the researchers lowered the pH of the synthetic soil to 7.2, the crops survived for a week but eventually died.

Besides, another problem is that the synthetic dirt did not comprise calcium perchlorate, a toxic salt that makes for about two percent of the surface on Mars. When Palmer's team added it to the soil, none of the crops grew in the dirt.

"The perchlorate is a major problem" for growing crops on Mars, says Edward Guinan, astrobiologist, Villanova University, Pennsylvania. "There are bacteria on Earth that enjoy perchlorates as a food," he added.

The microbes consume the salt and produce oxygen. Guinan believes that if these bacteria are taken to Mars to eat perchlorates in Martian soil, they can get eliminate toxic components and also produce breathable oxygen for astronauts. "It probably depends where you land, what the geology and chemistry of the soil are going to be," Guinan says.

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