Martian soil can grow tomatoes, leeks, new research says

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Scientists grow tomatoes, peas, and leeks in Martian soil simulant.
Image: 21st Century Fox

Matt Damon might have been onto something after all. Though it is widely believed that Martian soil is too nutrient-poor to grow crops, new research is proving otherwise. This week, a paper published in the journal Open Agriculture showed how a research team was able to grow select crops in a soil meant to simulate that of Mars.

This is a notable development that brings the dream of Martian colonization one step closer to reality. For future astronauts to survive on the red planet, planting, harvesting, and germinating crops will be essential parts of the process. Fortunately, it might be easier than previously thought.

Mars Farm

While astronauts living aboard the ISS can survive on freeze-dried and vacuum-packed foods, this simply isn’t a possibility for Martian colonists. For one, the cost of sending food to the planet would be tremendous. Secondly, Earth can barely produce enough food to feed its own residents, let alone an expanding extraplanetary colony.

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Dr. Wieger Wamelink, the paper’s lead author, says, “A (permanent) human settlement on Mars or the Moon is becoming more realistic.”

He continues, “Several countries and private companies are preparing for this journey. One of the major issues will be ensuring food availability and safety. Food can and will be brought along, but for a permanent stay, production of crops on Mars or the Moon to supplement or even supply the total food demand could be a necessity.”

Fortunately, bringing that vision to life is proving to be less challenging than expected. The research team was able to successfully grow tomatoes, leeks, radishes, cress, rye, and peas in simulated Martian soil. The experiment was also successful using a moon soil simulant.

Mealtime Flavor

Astronauts currently living in space often complain that their food lacks flavor. As such, the researchers focused on growing foods that are either spicy or naturally flavorful. These hypothetically serve as ideal companions to traditional space food.

While the experiment is certainly exciting, it is far from the finish line of extraterrestrial crop growing. Needless to say, plenty more research is needed to confirm the findings and see what other crops can thrive in Martian and moon soils.

As for the success of this experiment, though, Dr. Wamelink said, “We were thrilled when we saw the first tomatoes ever grown on the Mars soil simulant turning red. This means that the next step towards a sustainable closed agricultural ecosystem had been taken.”

With private space corporations and NASA looking to the stars with ambitious goals, this research may prove useful sooner rather than later.