Out of this world: 'Moon and Mars veggies' grow in Dutch greenhouse

Researcher Wieger Wamelink inspects the plants grown in Mars and moon soil simulant in a research facility at the University of
Researcher Wieger Wamelink inspects the plants grown in Mars and moon soil simulant in a research facility at the University of Wageningen

Establishing a human colony on the Moon and travelling to Mars has been the stuff of dreams since the dawn of the space age.

But these visions face many hurdles. How can humans survive for months or years in the ultra-hostile environment of ? What, for instance, will they eat?

Agricultural researchers at a Dutch university say they are taking the first steps towards providing an answer.

They are growing vegetables in soils similar to those found on the Moon and Mars, looking for ways of helping space pioneers grow their own crops.

"When people go to the Moon and Mars they also have to eat, and it's easiest for them to grow their own food," said Wieger Wamelink, surrounded by several dozen in a special greenhouse at Wageningen, an agricultural university in central Netherlands.

"We wanted to use real Martian and ," to see if plants would actually grow in it, Wamelink told AFP.

Of course, getting real lunar and Martian potting is an impossible ask. But an Internet search revealed an unlikely supplier: NASA.

The US makes ground similar to that on the Moon from sand found in an Arizona desert, while Mars' crimson "soil" is scooped from a volcano in Hawaii, Wamelink told AFP.

The first experiments started in 2013 after Wageningen received an order of 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of NASA's imitation "space soil"—at a hefty price of 2,000 euros ($2,285).

Wamelink stuck tomatoes, peas, cress and other plants in pots containing the simulated soil... and crossed his fingers.

To work in this soil "was very special. Nobody, not even NASA, could tell us what would happen," even just by simply adding water, he said.

The imitation ground at first was a little "reluctant" to absorb water, but soon turned out to be good potting soil.

Like the actor Matt Damon in the science fiction movie "The Martian", Wamelink watched with amazement as his "space veggies" grew bigger day-by-day.

"Especially in the Martian soil, plants were growing very fast and very good. They even started to flower, something that we never anticipated," Wamelink said. The 50-day experiment was written up in the science journal PLOS One in August 2014.

NASA plans a human trip to Mars within the next 10 to 15 years
NASA plans a human trip to Mars within the next 10 to 15 years

Safe for humans?

An essential question however remains whether these unusual vegetables are safe to eat.

Martian and lunar soil, including NASA's own imitation, may contain heavy metals that are harmless to plants but could prove deadly to humans.

Wamelink has come up with a possible solution.

If analyses show that the vegetables contain arsenic, mercury or iron making them unfit for human consumption, the soil can be purified by growing other plant species such as violets which absorb the poisons.

Wamelink concedes that the experiment has a drawback—it is being conducted in non-sterile conditions on Earth where only the nutrient quality of the soil is being assessed.

"There's much more to test," Wamelink admitted.

Extremely cold temperatures—dropping to minus 62 degrees Celsius (minus 79 Fahrenheit) on Mars—as well as a lack of oxygen means that lunar or Martian vegetables and fruit could only be grown in a closed and controlled environment.

The facility would have to be pressurised to normal atmospheric conditions on Earth, heated and lit, and protected from cosmic radiation, which damages plant DNA.

That points to a "space greenhouse"—a type of container, buried underground and kitted out with solar panels and LED lighting. Water should be no problem as it is found as ice on both the Moon and Mars, said Wamelink.

Other questions that need answers include the presence of friendly bacteria to help plant growth and what happens to plants that grow in low gravity.

'Long way to go'

NASA plans a human trip to Mars within the next 10 to 15 years or so but similar plans are also being pursued by billionaire Elon Musk and the Dutch company Mars One, tentatively aiming to set up human colonies on the Red Planet.

Technology and the know-how to keep astronauts alive on Mars still has a long way to go said Christophe Lasseur, a European Space Agency (ESA) "Life Support" expert, who deals with metabolic aspects of space travel.

Lasseur believed Wamelink's research of growing plants in space soils "is not a priority".

He said other requirements for space survival like the proper infrastructure to grow similar vegetables in laboratories was far more essential to provide "maximum reliability" for future teams.

"We must regard a plant as a piece of technology and understand exactly what happens to it first. All chemical, microbiological and physiological aspects (of plants in extraterrestrial conditions) needs to be understood and mapped... We cannot take risks."


Explore further

First tomatoes and peas harvested on Mars and moon soil simulant

Journal information: PLoS ONE

© 2016 AFP

Citation: Out of this world: 'Moon and Mars veggies' grow in Dutch greenhouse (2016, May 17) retrieved 23 October 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2016-05-world-moon-mars-veggies-dutch.html
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May 17, 2016
It's probable to suggest that the first colony on mars or the moon would utilize hydroponics from human urea & inorganic/organic manufactured liquid nutrient (possibly derived from palatable algae grown from human feces) to grow crops.

Algae could be breed via an atomic garden or genetically engineered to thrive within the colony but die in the native martian environment yet consume human feces or urea if necessary & carbon dioxide too producing (once processed) a nutritionally enriched nitrated liquid like brew (organic tea) for the hydroponic system.

Fungi and other micro organisms may also be utilized in a similar fashion too. As many as possible inorganic life support methods & process should be considered though given the reliability & environmental tolerances of life support machinery vs organic organisms susceptible to ionizing or disease based DNA damage, unpredictable biological behavior in a micro-ecosphere (competing with each other till extinction) etc.

May 17, 2016
The guy does looks a little like Matt Damon...

May 17, 2016
"The facility would have to be pressurised (sic) to normal atmospheric conditions on Earth,..."

Why couldn't the seeds taken to Mars be genetically modified beforehand to sprout and thrive at lower atmospheric pressures?

May 17, 2016
Why couldn't the seeds taken to Mars be genetically modified beforehand to sprout and thrive at lower atmospheric pressures?

'Genetic modification' is not a magic wand that can be waved to make any plant/animal do anything we want (and not just because we don't have the kind of control over it that is shown in Hollywood Blockbusters).

Plants need to exchange gases with their environment (take in CO2 during the day and expel O2...and reverse that during nighttime)
This only works if the outside pressure is large enough to allow gas interchange into the plant. Mars' atnospheric pressure is very low (less than 1% of Earth atmospheric pressure). Also the nighttime cycle wouldn't work at all due to lack of O2.

(On a side note: even if we could geoengineer Mars' atmosphere to a perfect 80/20 mix of nitrogen and oxygen we still couldn't breathe it for the same reason. We'd ALSO have to up the atmospheric quantity by a factor of 150-200 to get breathable pressure.)

May 17, 2016
"billionaire Elon Musk and the Dutch company Mars One, tentatively aiming to set up human colonies on the Red Planet."

When do they merge to form the Union Aerospace Corporation?


May 17, 2016
Someone in our government has to have a moment of common sense and realize we desperately need to colonize the Moon first so we can mature the technology to do a Mars colony. Trying to go before we are ready would be suicide.

May 22, 2016
As long as the rich people want Mars, we will have Mars.

Someone in our government has to have a moment of common sense and realize we desperately need to colonize the Moon first so we can mature the technology to do a Mars colony. Trying to go before we are ready would be suicide.


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