In The Martian, fictional astronaut and consummate wiseacre Mark Watney survives being stranded on the red planet by growing potatoes in the Martian soil, extending his usual rations well past their expected usefulness. But in the real world, there have been concerns over using Mars’s soil to grow food, due to there being a great deal more heavy elements found in it, as compared to what’s found in typical Earth dirt. However, a new study from the Netherlands appears to show that Watney may have been on to something.
Using simulated Martian regolith designed by NASA, a research team from Wageningen University grew ten different crops, including potatoes, mixing the simulated soil with organic fertilizer. "It’s important to test as many crops as possible, to make sure that settlers on Mars have access to a broad variety of different food sources,” explains ecologist Dr Wieger Wamelink. Because of the sheer amount of resources needed to travel to and from Mars, any long-term habitation there will require the astronauts to produce their own food.
The plants that have been produced are currently undergoing testing to see if they are safe to eat. Martian regolith is colored by high levels of oxidized iron, and also contains arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead and mercury, toxic elements that could potentially be absorbed by the plants. However, preliminary testing done on peas, tomatoes, rye, and radishes show safe levels, with some plants even showing levels below what was found in control plants that were grown using regular potting soil. If the plants are determined to be safe to consume, taste-testing is expected to be conducted in late June.
Now all that is needed is a way to produce ketchup, 250 million miles from home…