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Growing crops to support life on Mars
Rarely a week goes by when Elon Musk, of Tesla and SpaceX fame, is not featured in the news. Many will be aware of his desire to colonise Mars, and no one can deny his commitment to developing rockets that may one day take us there. Before anyone ever sets foot on the Red Planet, however, numerous supply ships will have had to deposit the essential equipment to support life. Presumably, any manned mission will take sufficient food to keep the new inhabitants alive for the first months, but in the long-term, they will have to grow their own.
It’s good news then, that scientists at Wageningen University & Research have identified several locations on Mars that could support the growing of crops. While the crops themselves will be grown inside, the planet’s soil and water will be vital resources. As on Earth, the conditions for growing produce on Mars will have to be suitable and ensure the crop receives the necessary nutrients. One concern is around high levels of solar radiation and heavy metals in the soil in certain areas, which would rule them out as potential sites for colonisation. The researchers have put together a map of viable sites, taking all of these factors into consideration.
The research group has been using soil simulants from NASA to experiment with growing different crops and has had success with a range of produce, such as green beans, peas, radish, tomato, potato, carrot and garden cress. This is a promising start and hopefully, the list of sustainable crops will increase over time. In order to grow them successfully, however, astronauts will need to add agronomy to their already extensive skillset.