Farming on Mars :
The vision of colonizing the red planet is gradually growing its wings, the planet is now attracting the attention of earthlings like never before.
The idea to colonize Mars has made every Space Organization in the world to look at the planet with great aspiration. But just like on Earth, colonization of any region by a particular species depends on the sustainability of those organisms. And the hostile environment of Mars throws a massive challenge to the idea of colonization. Scientists say farming on Mars can eliminate this challenge. But the billion-dollar question is…
Is farming on Mars really possible..?
To get an idea about how farming on Mars looks like, there’s no other movie better than The Martian, Where the astronaut Watney who gets stranded on Mars comes up with an improvised idea of growing potatoes using his own feces as a natural fertilizer in order to survive.
Image credit: 20th Century Studios
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But in reality, the recent botanical experiments by scientists in the controlled lab that mimics close to the Martian environment revealed that farming on Mars is way much more complex than just planting potatoes in poop.
Scientists used Lettuce and Arabidopsis thaliana for the ‘Farming on Mars’ experiment. They used three different kinds of simulated Martian soil. Of the 3, two were composed of particles extracted from the Mojave Desert that looked like the dirt of the red planet.
The third was entirely synthetic made, based on the data sent by curiosity rover itself, composed of clays, volcanic rock, salts, and other chemicals to closely mimic the red planet’s soil.
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In the experiment, both the lettuce and A. thaliana survived in the first two soil samples, but neither of them survived in the synthetic soil, the scientists reported.
One of the scientists that made the soil, Scientist Kevin Cannon of the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo, said, “It’s not surprising at all that as you get (soil) that’s more and more accurate, closer to Mars, that it gets harder and harder for plants to grow in it.”
The soil on our planet is filled with organic matter and microbes that are needed by the plants to grow, but the Martian soil is primarily crushed rocks.
The yielded results “tell 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.
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The researchers planted the seeds in the 3 soil samples under the Martian environment-imitating conditions in the controlled laboratory just like an astronaut would do for farming on Mars(70% humidity in the atmosphere and 22°C).
Seeds of both lettuce and A. thaliana germinated in the first two soil samples as they were nurtured with a mixture of calcium, potassium, nitrogen, and other supplements, and the seeds in the synthetic soil failed to germinate. The seeds that germinated in the 1st two natural soil samples were then transferred into the synthetic soil with fertilizers, but they died in under a week of transplantation in the ‘Farming on Mars’ experiment.
The researchers said that it might be due to the synthetic soil’s high pH level which was about 9.5. They also stated that adding calcium perchlorate, a toxic salt that makes up to about 2% of the surface of the red planet to the synthetic Martian soil at concentrations similar to that on the Martian surface is the cause.
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“The perchlorate is a major problem” for farming on Mars, said Edward Guinan, an astrobiologist at Villanova University. But it doesn’t have to be the main culprit. “There are bacteria on Earth that enjoy perchlorates as food,” he added.
Some microbes eat Calcium perchlorate and give oxygen in return. If these microbes make it to the Martian soil for farming on Mars, they would not only reduce the toxicity of the soil but also help in producing oxygen for the astronauts, he said.
The research report for facts-check of farming on Mars is reported in the Jan 15, Icarus. Whatever it is, farming on Mars is not quite as easy as it looks in The Martian. But if we want to establish a sustainable colony on Mars, finding ways for farming on Mars is without a doubt one of the keys to make it happen.
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