Geologists Simulate Martian Soil Conditions to Figure Out How to Grow Plants on Mars

Mars Greenhouse

A rendering of a house beside a greenhouse on Mars. Credit: NASA

Geologists Dig Into Question of Martian Soil Fertility

Humankind’s next giant step may be onto Mars.

But before those missions can begin, scientists need to make scores of breakthrough advances, including learning how to grow crops on the red planet. Practically speaking, astronauts cannot haul an endless supply of topsoil through space. So University of Georgia geologists are figuring out how best to use the materials already on the planet’s surface.

To do that, they developed artificial soil mixtures that mimic materials found on Mars. In a new study published in the journal Icarus, the researchers evaluated the artificial soils to determine just how fertile Martian soil could be.

Mars Greenhouse Rendering

An artist’s rendering of a greenhouse on Mars. Credit: NASA

“We want to simulate certain characteristics of materials you could easily get on Mars’ surface,” said Laura Fackrell, UGA geology doctoral candidate and lead author on the study. Simulating the mineral makeup or salt content of these Martian mixtures can tell us a lot about the potential fertility of the soil. Things like nutrients, salinity, pH are part of what make a soil fertile and understanding where Mars’ soils are at in that spectrum is key to knowing if they are viable and if not, are there feasible solutions that can be used to make them viable.”

Using what we know

In the last decade, Martian surface exploration has expanded the understanding of the chemistry of the planet’s surface. Using data taken from NASA’s surface samples, the team studied regolith, or the loose material near the surface, to develop the simulants. The materials used mimic mixtures of soil, clay minerals, salts, and other materials obtainable from Mars’ surface by scooping loose material or mining it from bedrock.

Despite its thin atmosphere, extreme cold, and low oxygen, Mars’ surface is known to contain the majority of plant essential nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

Inside Mars Greenhouse

An artist’s rendering of a greenhouse on Mars. Credit: NASA

The presence of nutrients accomplishes one of the big hurdles, but there are still more challenges. “One problem is, their presence doesn’t mean they are accessible to plants,” Fackrell said. “If you actually put a plant in the ground—just because the iron or the magnesium is there doesn’t mean the plant can actually pull it out of the soil.”

Plus, the nutrients may or may not be present in sufficient quantity or they may be so high in concentration that they are toxic to plants.

A difficult task

Using simulated Martian soils, Fackrell and fellow researchers have found the textures of artificial simulants to be crusty and dried which may reflect some unexpected conditions of Mars soils that make them more difficult to use.

These challenges add up to a very difficult, though not impossible task. Looking to agricultural science, the group, which includes UGA faculty members Paul Schroeder, Mussie Habteselassie and Aaron Thompson, adapts solutions used on Earth, recommendations that range from rinsing the soil to adding inoculants like bacteria or other fungi to the soil to help the plants grow.

“Specific types of bacteria and fungi are known to be beneficial for plants, and may be able to support them under stress conditions like we see on Mars,” said Fackrell, who began her studies in geomicrobiology with Schroeder while conducting her master’s thesis research on extreme environments faced by microbes living in hot springs in the Kamchatka Peninsula, in the Russian Far East.

The scientists also see implications from their research for potential innovations in agricultural research for Earth. “Anything we learn about farming on Mars could help with farming in challenging environments on Earth that help us build to a sustainable future,” Fackrell said.

Whatever the eventual solution, the prospect of a manned mission to Mars hinges on the ability to grow food.

“There are multiple ways you can look at it, but one option might be to use what’s already there as a potting medium, and figure out if that’s a viable way to do it or if you have to bring all the plant materials with you,” Fackrell said. “The question of whether we can use Mars soil to provide that food will go a long way toward determining the feasibility of manned missions.”

Reference: “Development of Martian regolith and bedrock simulants: Potential and limitations of Martian regolith as an in-situ resource” by Laura E. Fackrell, Paul A. Schroeder, Aaron Thompson, Karen Stockstill-Cahill and Charles A. Hibbitts, 21 August 2020, Icarus.
DOI: 10.1016/j.icarus.2020.114055

5 Comments on "Geologists Simulate Martian Soil Conditions to Figure Out How to Grow Plants on Mars"

  1. Sekar Vedaraman | October 28, 2020 at 10:38 am | Reply

    Interesting.

    Well, sometimes the assumptions of essentil nutrients required may also need to be questioned as well as the quantities of the same needed. In large cities hydroponics is producing almost self sufficient communities as far as a great deal of food requirements.

    Food is a essential requirement for the energy required by the Cells in the body . The same can be provided by the Sun, and if we can avoid the Photosynthesis which is the essential process by which solar energy to make plants fed with nutrients , covert the same from solar energy to food (stored as potential energy) that we consume , which are actually stores of potential energy. We consume food and convert the said potential energy into the energy required by the body for normal functioning of the cells. Then the excretory system needs to function properly to expel the waste and maintain the good health of humans.

    Remember reading about a Kid in Pakistan, who got his energy requirements directly from the sun and only needed water to survive. In India, there is Religious Community which practises fasting for long periods of time. They are called Jains. In 2015, one Jain Muni completed 423 days of fasting (No food consumed). Another Jain Muni carried out a Water fast of 180 days in 2017- 2018.
    There are many ways to skin a cat. If we can bypass the photosynthesis process by which we use the solar energy to provide the energy requirements of the human body, we could bypass the current technology (food production and consumption) that we use currently to convert the solar energy to the enrgy requirements of the humans.Ofcourse the pyschological requirements and experience of the enjoyment of delicios food needs to be addressed , but I am sure this would not be a problem.

  2. Ephraim Becker | October 28, 2020 at 12:04 pm | Reply

    Is it harder to live on Mars or Antarctica?

  3. Charles Sutton | October 30, 2020 at 12:24 am | Reply

    The facts are, no human being will ever live on Mars. They may get there plant some vegetables etc.
    But with no water or oxigen
    And the time it takes to grow food, they will die.
    Face facts all the interest in Mars is to generate money. However the research will benifit people living on Earth.

  4. Actually there is water on mars and they will have shelters on mars to provide oxygen. Do a little research before spouting that nonsense.

  5. REALLY!? How do you simulate 100 to 150 degree temperature variations daily, enough solar and cosmic radiation levels to immediately alter DNA AND RNA, dust storms at 200 mph and a planetary wobble of up to 90 – 110 degrees (Earth is only 22 degrees)??????? Mars colonization is BS.

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