Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
We might be able to garden.
Human colonization of Mars, the most habitable planet in the solar system aside from Earth, is no longer an if but a when. NASA's chief scientist has said we'll have an astronaut on Mars by 2035, with plans to eventually establish a "permanent presence." And Mars One, a Dutch nonprofit with independent plans for a human colony, is currently choosing astronauts from the batch of 200,000 who applied to live there, starting in 2024.
Now to attend to the non-negligible details, such as how to eat once we get there—the question a new study on the feasibility of gardening on Mars and the moon takes up.
A team of Dutch scientists planted 14 plant species—including carrots, tomatoes, clover, and mustard—in Martian and Lunar soil simulants obtained from the same supplier NASA uses, as well as in nutrient-poor river soil from Earth. They gave the plants demineralized water, and no special nutrients. After 50 days, the researchers found that roughly 20 percent of the plants in lunar soil, 50 percent of the plants in Earth soil, and 65 percent of the plants in Martian soil were still living. Crop species like tomatoes and cress had the highest germination rates, too.
That the Martian soil did better than any other came as a surprise to the researchers. They write that the results show it's theoretically possible to grow crops in these simulants, and perhaps in real Martian soil inside an artificial enclosure. "However," they add, "many questions remain about the simulants' water-carrying capacity... and also whether the simulants are representative of the real soils." Not to mention, the effects of Mars-specific gravity and light.