Edward Guinan, Villanova University – Growing Food on Mars

Could we grow food on Mars?

Edward Guinan, professor of astronomy at Villanova University, answers this question.

Dr. Guinan is a pioneer in astronomy and space science research that studies our Sun, stars, and planets inside and outside our solar system as well as the search for potential life on these planets. His recent research efforts are primarily aimed at studying the effects that X-ray and UV from host stars… have on their planets and to determine if these exoplanets could be habitable. Dr. Guinan also carries out research in astrobiology on Earth to study extremophiles (life in extreme conditions) as proxies for potential life on Venus, Mars, and Titan. A principal and guest investigator on numerous NASA astronomy and NASA and NSF-sponsored research programs, Dr. Guinan is active in international outreach work in astronomy and in establishing and promoting astronomy education worldwide.

Growing Food on Mars

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Mars may become humankind’s next home address if planned space missions to the Red Planet are successful. And, one of the most important aspects of establishing a self-sustaining colony in the inhospitable Martian climate will be to provide a sustainable food source by growing plants in sheltered greenhouses. Last fall I challenged my students to engage in a pilot study to learn how to do just that.                     

The students, planted, grew and tested a variety of vegetables and herbs in the University’s greenhouse using Mars regolith simulant, an iron rich basalt with reagents added to closely approximate the chemical content of Martian topsoil. Based on Mojave Mars Simulant developed at the National Aeronautics and Space Agency and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the simulant is 90 percent similar to regolith found on the surface of Mars, excluding poisonous perchlorates found on the planet’s actual surface which scientists are working on removing.

Tasked with growing plants that are nutritious and likely to thrive, my students included carrots, spinach, lettuce, kale, garlic, and potatoes among others.   For good measure, hops—an ingredient needed to brew beer—was also included. 

The project, which concluded in December 2017, tested the plants in a number of growing conditions—using chemical and organic fertilizers, varying light conditions, and in comparison to identical “control plants” grown in Earth soil/humus.

The winners? Basil, kale, hops, onions, garlic, lettuce, sweet potatoes and mint flourished. Spinach, peas and potatoes languished. The class test-tasted the Martian vegetables at semester’s end and judged them as tasty as their counterparts grown in Earth soil.

Now we’re testing how earthworms do in the Mars soil / compost mix. And, for good measure, we’ll try growing a grain – barley – to see if we can microbrew a Mars beer.

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