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The Fertile Soils of Mars?

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 29, 2013

Sorry to say, but this research just seems dumb to me.  How do they think they are going to grow crops on Mars, or the moon, given that the soil there almost certainly lacks the microbes plants depend on here on Earth?

And since the real problem is how to feed an additional two billion humans here on Earth by mid-century, shouldn’t that be the focus of real interest?

Well, at least this time it’s Dutch money that’s being wasted, not NASA’s.  ANd I like the line about how the planned voyage to Mars does not include a return ticket.  Score one point for reality.  Here’s the press release:

We have been to the moon several times. Next time, we may go back for a considerable period. And concrete plans for a one-way ticket to Mars have already been forged. Food will have to be grown on location. Is this a distant future scenario? Not for Wieger Wamelink, ecologist at Alterra Wageningen UR, for whom the future will begin on 2 April. He will be researching whether or not it is possible to grow plants on the moon.

Will plants survive in Martian soil or moon dust? This question was initially prompted by Dutch plans to establish a colony on Mars. As the plan does not include a return trip, the basic necessities would have to be satisfied on location. “Mars is still a long way off,” says Wieger Wamelink, explaining his plans. “But the moon is closer, so it would be more realistic to establish a colony there. What’s more, we already know the mineral composition of the soil on the moon, and of moon dust. So what I’m aiming to find out now is whether plants will grow in moon substrate, or whether certain essential elements are lacking. This has never been done before. We are gradually discovering more about Mars, which is why the planet has been included in this research.”

Wamelink’s research will compare the requirements of certain species of plants with the mineral composition of the soil on the moon and Mars. Alterra has a database that can analyse 25 abiotic preconditions per species and calculate whether a plant species will survive or not. The database also stores information about heavy metals and minerals, although as yet, there are no fixed preconditions for these elements. Using this data, he will be able to determine which plant species would theoretically be capable of growing in moon dust or Martian soil.

Wieger Wamelink: “We will then allow certain species of wild plants and agricultural crops to germinate in pots of artificial moon and Martian soil supplied by NASA. The growth of these plants will be compared with that of the same species in ordinary soil from the Earth. Preconditions relating to heavy metals and minerals will be derived from our findings. Our research is based on the premise that an atmosphere will be available to the colony, perhaps in domes or buildings. We are also assuming the presence of water, either from the moon or Mars or transported from Earth. The plants would produce oxygen and recycle carbon dioxide, ultimately creating a kind of ecosystem.”

At a later stage, Wamelink also wants to look into the food safety of agricultural crops grown in human-made conditions on the moon in moon soil. The first trial crops will be planted in greenhouses on 2 April.

One Response to “The Fertile Soils of Mars?”

  1. kermidge said

    It’s not a zero-sum game. Such monies as are spent on going to Mars are miniscule compared to any endeavors on Earth. Those monies do not go to Mars. They are spent here on Earth and go towards research in all manner of biologics, speciation, building of dirt into soil (dirt is what you find; soil is what plants grow in), elimation of dirt toxins or elements interfering with good growth of desired crops, and much more, and in all cases providing for a broad spectrum of employment.

    Going back to the ’70s, when I first looked at the situation and continuing over the years, every careful analysis concerning hunger on Earth concluded that the causes of and fixes for hunger have relatively little to do with money qua money. The major factors have been and continue to be political will – the lack thereof, more to the point, corruption, and transport. It boils down to people in power deciding that hungry people either serve their needs or are irrelevant to those needs. That’s it.

    There is the ongoing matter of scientific research into making and growing better crops – those better suited to a given environment, better resistance to disease and pests, better and more nutritous yields, better sustainability vis-a-vis what they use from the soil and what they put back into it, along with the areas of inter- and rotation-cropping, fallow fielding, nitrogen fixing, and subsoil ecology. Factor in need of bees for pollination, diversification of species against over-reliance on too narrow a spectrum of species – a situation we are now facing, btw.

    There is also the continuing exploration and delineation of carrying capacity – how many people can we support at what level of living conditions in all respects, including foodstuffs and closely-related areas of textiles and grown building materials.

    Last I looked, it seems we can figure on around ten billion of us by mid-century, as you say. Best mid-level leveling I recall is around 14 billion before natural reduction – IF we decide to raise and keep the required standard of living to achieve that natural leveling. If we started now in concerted fashion we could limit the growth even more. Else, in either of those cases, all bets are off and we’ll have to rely on the more historic means of population reduction.

    But you’d know, or at least be aware of the bulk of it, had you been able to spend up to a day in doing a bit of poking around on the inter-Webs. All the info is there, all from highly-reputable sources, all the raw data available if you don’t trust the analysis. Sorry, that might have come across as snide, and I don’t mean it that way (well, maybe a taste, to be quite honest, but more as an aside; I’m getting to get a bit crusty in my approaching dotage); it’s not an area where many people will make a decision or have the time or patience to really look into, and it does take time out of one’s regular activities which can themselves be quite demanding. I’ve had the luxury through decades of poverty of having had time to spend reading into things. I’ve also had the fortune (and aching back) of growing most of my vegetables and some herbs and fruits for some years, way back when, so I perforce had to learn a few things from the ground up, as it were. (Seriously, even if it’s just growing some sprouts or such in a windowsill pot, it’s a neat trip, man. If all you get from a year’s crop is one salad, it’s gonna be a good salad. “I grew that!”)

    I have read some of your things over the years and while I certainly don’t agree with some, I do enjoy them, and admire the way you dive right into things. I’ve even saved a few pieces to my hard drive – thank you.

    Oh, and the Moon is, for the purposes of Mars, a distraction at best. The dirts are distinctly different as are the environments under which anything would be grown; there would be pitifully little to be learned by growing anything on Moon that would usefully apply to Mars. I would like access to the Alterra DB, tho, it sounds interesting. And while the research Wamelink proposes would almost certainly contain some useful stuff, which I’d also like to see, for anything really useful the environments should be regarded as separate. I posit the most useful cross-environment results would be in the mechanics – control of fines, for instance, and some of the basics of the various robotic machineries involved. The chemistries are simply too divergent for anything else, as best I can figure.

    The issue of distance is also mostly irrelevant; the single largest factor there is communication time. Distance in space travel is down to delta-v, energy density and specific impulse of propellant and the engine used, mass-thrust ratio, particular transfer orbit, thus time of travel. Against that reality, the matter of Mars is simply one of patience, not distance per se.

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