Simulated Mars soil has been shown to successfully cultivate ten different crops, giving hope for the future of human colonisation on the Red Planet.
Tomatoes, peas, rye, rocket, radish and garden cress were all harvested in the experiment conducted by the Wageningen University & Research Centre in the Netherlands.
The goal of the experiment was to demonstrate that it is possible to grow crops on Mars and on the Moon, in order to feed their first settlers.
The crops fared surprisingly well, with growth rates not differing significantly from the control group which used Earth soil.
“The total above-ground biomass produced on the Mars soil simulant was not significantly different from the potting compost we used as a control”, said researcher Dr Wieger Wamelink.
The production of biomass on the Mars soil simulant was lower than on the earth control, but it was only a minor difference and attributed to one of the trays which showed less growth than the others.
“That was a real surprise to us”, said Wamelink. “It shows that the Mars soil simulant has great potential when properly prepared and watered. The biomass growth on the moon soil simulant was less than on both other soils, about half of the biomass. Only the spinach showed poor biomass production.”
However, although the experiment yielded several harvested several edible crops, the researchers were not prepared to eat them.
The simulated Mars soils contained heavy metals like lead, arsenic and mercury and a lot of iron. If the components become available for the plants, the researchers were concerned they would be absorbed and distributed into the fruits, making them poisonous.
Further research on this is necessary and the team has begun a crowdfunding campaign to finance another experiment that will be focus on ensuring that the food is safe to eat. This campaign is due to commence in April 2016. A new batch of crops, including potatoes and beans, will be tested in these trials.
Meanwhile, a camera designed and built at the University of Bern in Switzerland is due to be launched with the ExoMars space orbiter on 14 March.
The orbiter is on a course for the Red Planet and the new camera will obtain stereo images of the surface in colour at a high resolutions.
The camera, called CaSSIS (Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System), is designed to complement the data acquired by the orbiter and will provide detailed images of the surface of Mars.
The first signals from the ExoMars spacecraft are expected nine hours after launch, but CaSSIS will not operate until mid-April.
“That will be a nervous time,” said Nicolas Thomas, leader of the research team. “But whatever happens, the Swiss engineering team did a fantastic job and showed how to build a high precision space instrument in an unbelievably short time.”