Food for Mars and the moon

Vegetables for Mars now growing on Earth

Photography: Shutterstock

It will not be long before people settle on Mars temporarily or permanently. And since fast return flights will not be an option for some time, the people on the Red Planet will have to grow their own food. With this in mind, Wageningen University & Research (WUR) researcher Wieger Wamelink and his colleagues have already successfully started growing vegetables on Martian soil.

WHY THIS RESEARCH?

One day, people will settle on Mars and on the moon. The travel distances involved will make provisioning difficult, so any human colony in space will have to be self-sufficient, with newly developed agriculture as the basis.

IMPACT

The development of a sustainable closed agricultural system that can be implemented on Mars and from which people on Earth can also benefit, for example in applications in future urban agriculture.

“Our first experiment was in 2013,” Wamelink says. “In the past few years, we have used some very small investments and a bit of crowdfunding to carry out successful experiments which have received attention in the international press. We have grown plants on soil from the moon and from Mars. And we have had some good harvests, especially with the latter. We even organised an entire dinner with our harvest of tomatoes, potatoes, radishes and more. Now it is time to apply our acquired knowledge to a fully-fledged ecosystem that can eventually be used in a greenhouse or another controlled environment on Mars. And for that we need financing.”

‘It sounds a bit disgusting, but on Mars poop and pee will be the only fertilisers available’

Wait a minute. Growing vegetables on soil from Mars and the moon. But we never brought soil back to Earth, did we? “We did not,” Wamelink agrees. “But NASA and a specialised company used research by lunar modules, Mars modules and satellites to to recreate such soil down to the smallest detail. It is available to order. But no one except us here at WUR had ever used such soil to cultivate crops.”


“We did experiments in three phases. First, we tried them on bare soil, which resulted in germinating plants and a small harvest. Then we enriched the soil with compost from plants from the first harvest. The results were much better as the soil was now capable of retaining water. In our third experiment, we added simulations of poop and pee. It sounds a bit disgusting, but on Mars those will be the only fertilisers available to people. That third experiment resulted in an even better harvest and proves that cultivation did not generate heavy-metal pollution. After all, food from Martian soil has to be safe.”

Duration

10 years

Partners

NASA (United States), ESA, NIOO-KNAW, Rijk Zwaan, De Polderworm

Where

the Netherlands & Mars

Funds needed

€5,250,000 + €5,000,000 to build a dome

A researcher weighs the replica moon soil for the experiment. Photo: Wieger Wamelink

Potting compost from planet Earth in the foreground, in front of trays with Martian soil. Photo: Wieger Wamelink

If the first experiments were so successful, why do we need more, large-scale research? “We still have a long way to go!” Wamelink laughs. “We can cultivate some vegetables, but much more than that is involved. We have to work on a closed agricultural system. Human excrement and urine have to be added to the soil together with all the organic waste material. Then you need worms, fungi and bacteria to process the soil. And bumblebees, for example, for pollination. This whole ecosystem has to be able to continue sustainably on Mars and you just cannot take along some bacteria. The advantage is that agriculture on Mars will take place in a fully controlled environment, so you can start without diseases and pests.”

Researcher Wieger Wamelink tells about his plans for growing plants on Mars and the moon.

“In actuality, we will be reinventing agriculture on new soil. We can also profit from this on earth, for example by developing applications in future urban agriculture. I estimate that we need about ten years or so to create a fully working system that we can take to Mars. By then we will have studied everything that can be studied from here on Earth for agriculture on Mars and on the moon. I would also like to see if you could take chickens along. They could have a good influence on the ecosystem and, as somewhat tame animals, they could also have a positive psychological effect on groups of people who are away from home for a long time. It is fun to think about those sorts of things! ‘To boldly grow where no plant has grown before’ – that would be a great motto for our project.”

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DR WIEGER WAMELINK

Position

Ecologist and exobiologist, Wageningen University & Research

Expertise

Climate change, Ecology, Environmental management, Landscape ecology, Nature management, Plant ecology, Nature conservation, Abiotics, Dispersion, Dissemination of plants, Pollution, Lichens, Simulation models, Soil-plant relations, Food cultivation on Mars and the Moon

Photo: Gea Hogeveen

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