Mark Watney plays Matt Damon’s astronaut The Martianfound himself abandoned on Mars, food became a top priority.
Watney eventually uses human waste to fertilize the not-so-clay Martian soil and grows potatoes. But now a group of scientists may have found a less awkward way to boost a Martian vegetable patch.
A new study published Wednesday has found that alfalfa seeds can grow in soil that mimics Martian dirt. Alfalfa is inherently nutritious, but the study also discovered that the sprouting plant can be composted to fertilize soil and boost the growth of vegetables like beets, radishes and lettuce.
While the research is far from being applied in real life (there are currently no planned human missions to Mars), it is another step forward in understanding how humans might survive on the Red Planet.
“I think it’s important to have studies like this one that help us give a sense of feasibility,” said Elizabeth Swanner, a biogeochemist at Iowa State University and one of the study authorsThe Independent.
“Can we meet all of the astronauts’ caloric and nutritional needs by growing the material locally? That’s a much bigger question.”
Real Martian soil (or regolith, as some other planets call it) is hard to come by. The only examples on Earth come from meteorites, said Dr. swanner
But researchers in the state of Iowa were able to simulate this regolith (which contained fewer nutrients than regular garden soil) by crushing volcanic rock.
Alfalfa, also known as alfalfa, grew quite well in the simulated regolith without any additional fertilizers or nutrients. When the simulated regolith was then treated with some of the crushed alfalfa, the beets, lettuce, and radishes all grew much taller than in bare soil.
In theory, human visitors to Mars could use alfalfa to turn the hard Martian dust into more fertile soil. But there’s a lot more to figure out before that’s feasible.
dr Swanner pointed out that the crops grown aren’t particularly high in calories, and when trying to survive on a planet as harsh as Mars, getting enough calories on a daily basis is crucial. Future research could examine whether different types of crops like beans could be grown under the same conditions, she added.
Questions also remain about how the alfalfa composting system would work in space. For example, there would probably need to be a self-contained, Earth-like atmosphere for the plants to grow in.
Perhaps most importantly, despite Elon Musk’s dreams of colonizing the Red Planet, humans still do not have the technology to transport humans to Mars and back to Earth.
But the research, published in the scientific journal PLUS ONE, can have applications right here on earth.
The climate crisis is devastating soil systems around the world as drought dries up farmlands and entire regions become drier.
But as the planet warms, it’s possible that regions not used to growing crops, like the Arctic, might get warm enough to do so, Dr. swanner It makes research into soil promotion relevant to non-space agriculture as well.
“I think it goes beyond just applications for Mars,” she says.