Farming in Martian Gardens

Can we grow food on Mars?

This is an essential question as the journey to get humans to Mars continues. There have been several exciting developments over the past few months and years, none more so than the testing of vegetable growth in simulated Martian soil.

The Experiment

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is partnering with the Florida Tech Buzz Aldrin Space Institute in Melbourne, Florida, to collaborate on research studying the performance of crop species grown in a simulated “Martian garden” — a proving ground for a potential future farm on the Red Planet (1).

The challenge lies in the fact that Martian dirt does not contain the insects and worms that benefit plant ecosystems. The soil has plenty of nutrients, however it also has some toxic chemicals. In the study above, researchers used a portion of 100 pounds of soil found in Hawaii, which was chosen based on its’ similar qualities to Martian soil.

In all, 3 alternative situations were tested:

  1. Control group – Lettuce planted in regular, Earth potting soil
  2. Simulated group – Lettuce planted in Martian-like soil
  3. Enhanced Simulated group – Lettuce planted in Martian-like soil with added nutrients

From the 30-day study it was found that plants can still be grown in Martian-like soil, but the plants do not grow as well as plants growing in Earth’s soil. Specifically, the simulated group was found to have slower germination rates (by 2-3 days) compared to the control, weaker root systems and a survival rate of about half of the original population planted.

Further experiments will now involve determining which added nutrients yield the best growth results in the simulated conditions. Furthermore, some of the plants they may try to grow during at least nine-months of testing include radishes, Swiss chard, kale, Chinese cabbage, snow peas, dwarf peppers and tomatoes — all nutritious foods and, more importantly, all tested and selected menu items for astronauts (1).

But it’s not just about green vegetables. Potatoes are also being studied heavily, and behind greens they are possibly the next best natural food item. NASA plant physiologist Ray Wheeler, Ph.D. understands that adding foods like potatoes, sweet potatoes, wheat, and soybeans could round out a diet on Mars. Wheeler has actually been studying plant growth in space since the 1980’s.

“Providing food is a complex issue… we have to think about nutritional issues, what’s acceptable and what tastes good. If nobody wants to eat it, that won’t work.”

– Ray Wheeler, Ph.D.

Essentially, in addition to packaged food that astronauts can bring along for the ride, every other food item and supplement needed for optimal health must be accounted for before a group can leave for Mars. With a projected launch date of sometime in the 2030’s, there’s plenty of time for the scientific community to figure this out.

A Community Effort

There is a growing effort to learn which plants could grow best in space and on Mars. Students around the country and the world have a newfound interest in this challenge.

“Once you tell the students that the plants are candidates for space and for astronauts to eat on their journey to Mars they start paying a lot of attention…”

– Trent Smith, project manager for Veggie

This brings an added element to the classroom, and it is a great way to spark the interest of students in universities and K-12 classrooms. Who knows, your students could influence the diet of humans on another planet.

Resources for Educators:

  1. Original article from NASA
  2. Students get involved
  3. Potatoes, water, light, and radiation – considerations from a real Mark Watney