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Mars Moon Space Technology

Dutch Researchers Grow Crops In Simulated Lunar and Martian Soil (blastingnews.com) 120

MarkWhittington writes: When people start living on the moon and Mars on a permanent basis, they are going to need to grow their own crops to produce food to eat. Indeed, in the recent hit movie, "The Martian," Matt Damon's character grew potatoes to survive long enough to be rescued. With that in mind, researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands have been trying to grow crops in simulated lunar and Martian soil. The first attempt was not successful. The second, however, proved to have promising results.
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Dutch Researchers Grow Crops In Simulated Lunar and Martian Soil

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    They forgot to add a bunch of crap!!!

  • Grass (Score:5, Funny)

    by DeBaas ( 470886 ) on Thursday March 10, 2016 @01:17PM (#51672299) Homepage

    This time, however, fresh-cut grass was added to the growing medium.

    Yes, we Dutch people have lot's of experience in adding grass into the mix...

  • by Coisiche ( 2000870 ) on Thursday March 10, 2016 @01:19PM (#51672311)

    Ok, it's just an experiment using simulated soils, but if it were tried for real then getting fresh cut grass to either the Moon or Mars might prove problematical.

    • The Mars Home Depot. Duh.
    • by Ogive17 ( 691899 )
      You could always launch sod on the spacecraft, then you'd always have some fresh clippings available.

      I imagine a voyage to Mars would require a modular spacecraft assembled after multiple unmanned launches from Earth. The manned component could have the required living organics necessary to start farming.
      • You can imagine a lot of things. That is called "science fiction". Ain't going to happen.
        • by Ogive17 ( 691899 )
          If we expect to set up colonies on Mars that allow the growing of food crops, I think it's a reasonable expectation that our space travel technology would also improve.

          I'm not saying it's anything that will happen soon.
          • If we expect to set up colonies on Mars that allow the growing of food crops, I think it's a reasonable expectation that our space travel technology would also improve.

            What if we begin with the expectation that we wouldn't go unless there was a reason to do so?

    • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) *

      That's easy - just grow it on the Moon or Mars? Oh, wait...

      The other minor problem for those who bothered to read TFA... the soils (and thus the plants) are rich in toxic heavy minerals so no one dared to eat them. This problem will be "discussed".

      • Those were the soils they took from the active volcano on Earth. The equivalent Mars soil would have the same lack of microbes and nutrients but should also lack the toxins.

        • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) *

          but should also lack the toxins.

          Or have even more...minor detail. Look it up. On Earth we have rain which along with time and sunlight tends to get into really tiny places and break things up and leach heavier elements deeper into the soil or downstream to the sea...

      • FTFA,

        The soils contained heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and mercury, and there were concerns that these could be taken up by the plants.

        "concerns" doesn't mean that the toxins were taken up, just that there were "concerns". That's a bit odd, because such analyses are pretty trivial, and absolutely routine. Odd that.

        My guess would be that they didn't analyse the "soils" either, and just took the composition, including the toxin content from the wrapper. [Googles] And here's the MSDS : http://www.orbitec [orbitec.com]

    • by Immerman ( 2627577 ) on Thursday March 10, 2016 @01:44PM (#51672521)

      Not really, unless you want to start a full-scale farm on day 1. You could easily bring a bit of potting soil and some seeds for fast-growing grass to get started, preferably something that can spread through the roots instead of only by seed. Trim the grass regularly to maintain maximum growth rate, and use it to enrich additional soil for the grass to spread into. It may take a while to enrich enough soil to start farming, but you're dealing with exponential growth so it will happen a lot faster than you might expect. Plan it right, and by the time you have your first pressurized greenhouse constructed you'll be ready to seed a substantial fraction of it with grass right away, and by the time you have your second greenhouse constructed you should have plenty of grass to enrich the soil immediately.

      Choose your grass wisely, and it will be an effective oxygen producer while it's busy enriching your soil. Take the right grass and/or companion microbes to break down cellulose into something we can digest and you can even eat the grass while waiting for your more nutritious crops to grow. I wonder how difficult it would be to make an artificial "cow stomach" bioreactor? After all cows don't actually digest grass, they digest the microbes that digest the chewed grass.

      And of course you don't actually need soil at all - you could start out growing grass hydroponically. Hydroponics has much higher infrastructure requirements that make it unattractive for large-scale usage in resource constrained environments, but a small scale facility could be a viable epicenter for staring "keystone" plant populations.

      • hydroponics seems to be effective at growing a certain crop in berkeley. I bet you could grow it on mars as well. In fact, i think we can just go ahead and add that to the list of amazing benefits to this plant. not only does it cure everything, it enables us to live on mars!
        • Yep, hydroponics are wonderful, so long as the infrastructure requirements are acceptable. Highly profitable cash crops within a fully industrialized economy are an easy win. Growing staple crops 140 million miles from the nearest hardware store... that gets a little dicier.

      • Take the right grass and/or companion microbes to break down cellulose into something we can digest and you can even eat the grass while waiting for your more nutritious crops to grow

        Not on Mars you can't [space.com]. Martian soil is highly toxic and will have to be processed and separated before use as farmland.
        • Perchlorates are indeed an issue, fortunately they're mostly water soluble which should make low-tech sand washing procedures quite viable so long as the colony is established near a plentiful water supply (which is probable anyway), or there's a similarly effective way to remove the perchlorates from the water for re-use. Evaporation maybe, it sounds like perchlorates tend to be salts, and I'm sure a concentrated supply of powerfully oxidizing salts would be useful stuff.

          And once you get the concentration

          • Soil perchlorate will react with any organic matter it gets hold of, but is consumed in the reaction. Just factor in another percent or so (by mass of soil to be treated) of OM to mix in with the mineral fraction in preparing your basic "soil". For a normal soil, you'll need to be getting several percent of OM into the soil already (from your hydroponics/ oxygen greenhouse) so it's not a big constraint on operations.

            Probably your first crop would end up being a sacrificial crop as you generate soil and try

      • by delt0r ( 999393 )
        Why bother with soil. Use hydroponics or aeroponics!
        • Fault tolerance. If your pump breaks down, your x-roponic crop is immediately living on borrowed time.
          Low infrastructure demands: pressure domes are still necessary, but with soil you pretty much just need a guy with a bucket occasioanally adding water as fast as it's incorporated into the crops. That helps scalability as well - pressure domes can be made with relatively low tech, lighting as well. high-reliability water pumps, etc. are a lot more finicky.

          Basically, when homesteading 150 million miles fro

          • by delt0r ( 999393 )
            Your in fucking space, your shit breaks down and your fucked no matter what. there is reason there is no grass on the moon or mars.
        • Root vegetables don't like being underwater.

    • You can grow grass by adding fresh cut tomatoes to the soil.

  • Spoiler (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Ogive17 ( 691899 ) on Thursday March 10, 2016 @01:19PM (#51672313)
    Thank you for ruining the end of the movie for me!
    • No worries, the potatoes are less than half way through the movie, nowhere near the end. Much more happens.

      Besides, watching any trailer reveals the potato growing.

      • by Ogive17 ( 691899 )
        I was referring to him being rescued. Him being stranded until he dies would probably not be a Hollywood script but an independent movie.
        • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) *
          Well he gets rescued, and THEN he dies... er, spoiler alert?
        • by creimer ( 824291 )

          Him being stranded until he dies would probably not be a Hollywood script but an independent movie.

          It's called a Hamlet ending (i.e., everyone dies). All it takes is one good independent movie to make money at the box office, and Hollywood will rush into production with a bunch of Hamlet-ending movies.

      • Darn, now you spoiled the trailer for me!

    • by hondo77 ( 324058 )

      Thank you for ruining the end of the movie for me!

      It's been five months. The Spoiler Expiration Date has passed.

  • Huh? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Rei ( 128717 ) on Thursday March 10, 2016 @01:26PM (#51672369) Homepage

    The soil simulants were provided by NASA, with the moon soil actually coming from a desert in Arizona, and the Mars soil coming from a Hawaiian volcano

    Huh? What kind of lousy "simulants" are those? Is Hawaiian volcano soil rich in perchlorates? Martian regolith is oxidizing enough that if you were playing around in it with your bare skin you'd get burns [nasa.gov]; it's similar to handling undiluted lye or bleach, highly destructive to organic matter.

    It's also very corrosive just from abrasion, although lunar regolith is worse. Trivia for people here: how many vacuum-sealed samples of lunar regolith do you think we have left over from the Apollo days? Answer: none. The regolith abraded the seals over time, creating pinpoint leaks; every last sample is now partially oxidized by Earth air.

    Additionally, both are believed to be very hazardous in terms of silicosis risk, akin to breathing what comes off of a rock crusher (Mars's is finer, but both are in the hazardous range). Martian regolith has some other nasty chemical surprises though (beyond the perchlorates)... among the contaminants that have been identified is what appears to be significant amounts of hexavalent chromium. That's the type of chromium almost never found in nature on Earth (because we live in an oxidizing environment) that's extremely toxic to people (think Erin Brockovich).

    This isn't just Earth soil; it's a totally different beast.

    Anyway, I'm not that big of a Mars fan... I'll take a colony on Venus any day over one on Mars. ;)

    • by Rei ( 128717 )

      And beyond that, you don't need soil to grow plants. Hydroponics / aeroponics are pretty much perfectly suited for Mars agriculture - minimizing the water and nutrient loads needed.

      • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) *
        Aquaponics even better, if you can keep the fish alive during the trip.
      • The problem with hydroponics is that all nutrients have to be added to the water. Plants do not grow well in distilled water.

    • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) *
      It was an experiment for undergraduate students. No one cares, and no one usually reads those. They all got a gold star and an "A" on their homework. You shouldn't insert too many facts into the picture, that's for post doctoral work.
    • by Punko ( 784684 )
      And as soon as you do a bit of water cycling through either the lunar or martian regolith, issues related to abrasion go away. The coagulation and binding of micro particles eliminates this. As for the perchlorates and other chemistry concerns, they of course, are still valid. Oxidation of the regolith will be rapid. I would expect that every new batch of regolith to be "converted" to soil will result in a series of blooms and die offs of different species of bacteria/fungi, as the oxides are converted.
    • Trivia for people here: how many vacuum-sealed samples of lunar regolith do you think we have left over from the Apollo days? Answer: none. The regolith abraded the seals over time, creating pinpoint leaks; every last sample is now partially oxidized by Earth air.

      Why couldn't they just put it in vacuum-sealed glass jars, and not turned them upside-down? The regolith isn't going to abrade the glass away, especially if you leave the jars sitting on a shelf (and you can use a harder, higher grade of glass too

      • They might not have realized what was going to happen.
      • Why couldn't they just put it in vacuum-sealed glass jars, and not turned them upside-down?

        If oxidation was the concern (which is what the original claim implied), there was never any need to keep them in vacuum. Dry nitrogen or argon would have done the job perfectly well and been a lot less hazardous than rigid vacuum vessels on the returning (atmosphere-filled) spacecraft.

    • by q4Fry ( 1322209 )

      I learned something new today. Thanks for that link.

      With respect to the vacuum packed moon dust, I'm a little surprised that they weren't stored in a (larger) vacuum-sealed room as soon as the first one scratched through its bag.

      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        It caught them by surprise. Moon dust turned out to be a lot more problematic of a substance than was initially expected. In some ways, not in others. There were lots of worries about moon dust before NASA got there... most famously that the dust layer may be so deep and loose that it would just swallow up a spacecraft. Another hypothesis that wasn't retired until after the moon landings was that, due to its reduced nature, that it might be pyrophorric in contact with air - either immediately, or with a

    • Trivia for people here: how many vacuum-sealed samples of lunar regolith do you think we have left over from the Apollo days? Answer: none. The regolith abraded the seals over time, creating pinpoint leaks; every last sample is now partially oxidized by Earth air.

      Since the Lunar samples are stored under nitrogen to prevent exactly this occurrence, not buying it. Got a reference?

      • Reference [space.com] and another [wikipedia.org]

        • Did you actually read your references? Do you know how to evaluate claims against other evidence?

          The first reference completely fails to support your claim. The second (when you follow the footnote) fails to mention that the samples are stored in nitrogen and thus it's claims are highly suspect.

          Try again when you have an actual reference that supports your claim, and in the meantime learn basic reading comprehension and analysis skills.

          • From the first reference:

            "People should not assume that the Apollo lunar soil samples remain representative of soils found in the natural environment of the moon, especially if they have been exposed to air," she told Space.com via email. "In addition to particle size distribution, other geotechnical properties (such as strength and cohesion) must also have changed. Also, for example, water found in the sample might be taken to be lunar in origin when in fact it is the result of contamination."

            If samples stored in nitrogen

            "Based on other evidence, it's possible that even the samples stored in nitrogen may be compromised," Cooper said.

            If samples stored in nitrogen may be compromised the what samples are definitely not compromised?
            From the second reference:

            Although this material has been isolated in vacuum-packed bottles, it is now unusable for detailed chemical or mechanical analysis – the gritty particles deteriorated the knife-edge indium seals of the vacuum bottles; air has slowly leaked in.

            It does not matter what gas the samples were stored in if air leaks in. The air will mil with the gas and contaminate the sample.
            How about this one;

            The various rocks and soil samples were placed in “rock boxes.” These were sealed at 10-12 torr on the Moon, only to be found to be at 1 atmosphere
            when opened in the Lunar Receiving Lab (LRL) at Johnson Space Center in Houston. [Author L.A. Taylor was in
            the LRL at that time.] The presence of the ‘clinging’ lunar dust had made the indium, knife-edge seals fail. This
            dust was so pervasive that no lunar rock boxes from any of the 6 Apollo missions to the Moon ever maintained their
            lunar vacuum -- they all leaked.

            Notice this NASA paper also makes no mention of nitrogen.
            How about this one [cleveland.com];

            Another indicator is that all of the environmental sample and gas sample seals failed because of dust. By the time they reached earth the
            samples were so contaminated as to be worthless.

            Maybe you should learn to use Google before attacking someone.

            • Sorry I fouled up on the link in the third reference [nasa.gov]. Where is your "other evidence"?

            • If samples stored in nitrogen may be compromised the what samples are definitely not compromised?

              The operative words here are MAY BE , where you pronounced the definitely are.

              From the second reference:

              Although this material has been isolated in vacuum-packed bottles, it is now unusable for detailed chemical or mechanical analysis â" the gritty particles deteriorated the knife-edge indium seals of the vacuum bottles; air has slowly leaked in.

              It does not matter what gas the samples were stored i

              • Yes, it does matter - because nitrogen isn't air, it's inert. It can't contaminate the sample.

                When common air mixes with the nitrogen due to compromised seals the material can be contaminated.

                You completely ignored the third citation from a NASA document that state clearly "This dust was so pervasive that no lunar rock boxes from any of the 6 Apollo missions to the Moon ever maintained their lunar vacuum -- they all leaked."

                So where is your evidence to the contrary? You have yet to present any research at all.

                You don't believe the seals on the containers were compromised by the regolith. Show your p

  • *rolls eyes* (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Notabadguy ( 961343 ) on Thursday March 10, 2016 @01:38PM (#51672467)

    Now we know how to grow food on Mars!

    Step 1: Be on Earth, with Earth Gravity.
    Step 2: Grow your food in an oxygenated, normal earth atmosphere.
    Step 3: Build a big warehouse, climate controlled, not subjected to martian weather or extremes.
    Step 4: Use desert soil.
    Step 5: When all of that fails, add fresh compost and grass, with plenty of water.

    I'm not sure how any of this works as "simulated" lunar and martian soil. If they had taken inert soil, or diatomaceous earth (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diatomaceous_earth)....that would have been a start.

    • Not to mention FTFA:

      The growing took place in a greenhouse with consistent temperature, humidity and light conditions, and under earth atmosphere. "This is because we expect that first crop growth on Mars and moon will take place in underground rooms to protect the plants from the hostile environment including cosmic radiation," says team member Dr. Wieger Wamelink.

      And no, the harvested crops weren't eaten. The soils contained heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and mercury, and there were concerns that thes

      • And no, the harvested crops weren't eaten. The soils contained heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and mercury, and there were concerns that these could be taken up by the plants.

        This should be the big showstopper. The whole purpose of growing plants on Mars or the Moon are for future astronauts to eat. If the astronauts can't eat them because the plants pulls toxic compounds from the soil, then what's the purpose of growing them in the first place? Why not just use hydroponics?

        • There's no indication that Martian soil contains those toxins. They used volcanic soil so that it would be free of microbes and biomatter; the toxins were a side effect of that, not necessarily a reflection of the soil expected on Mars.

  • The book, The Martian, is better than the movie. Human poop was used as a supplement to the Martian soil to grow the potatoes and depending on the size of the colony there may or may not be enough for an extended period. The advantage the single Martian had was he had all the poop from those who had left Mars, not just his own. I'm also wondering if the quality of the poop produced will degrade over time particularly if the colonists' food supply is only potatoes. Poopologists should comment.
  • It worked for Mark Watney.
  • Comment (Score:5, Funny)

    by WallyL ( 4154209 ) on Thursday March 10, 2016 @01:59PM (#51672613)

    So they literally scienced the shit out of it?

  • Perhaps they needed a canal expert?
  • I am not not going to go it WHAT they have been growing, but people have been using volcanic pumice for decades.
  • Who needs soil? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by wwalker ( 159341 ) on Thursday March 10, 2016 @02:27PM (#51672847) Journal

    Technically, you don't need soil to grow something. It's called hydroponics. In an emergency situation (The Martian), yes, it's easier to use soil, as you don't need as much water, no pumps, timers, etc. But if you are planning for it, why not go for pure hydroponics?

    • Exactly. There's a growing technique called the Mittleider method. It's been around for decades, but I've only just discovered it. The claim (backed up by a lot of history, experience, and science) is that plants need 16 different nutrients (not just NPK). So you start with NPK and add in the other trace elements. In his system, you put the same measured amount of fertilizer on the plants every week. They adjust for different uptakes from different types of plants by adjusting plant spacing. You can

      • In his system, you put the same measured amount of fertilizer on the plants every week.

        Where will this highly refined fertilizer come from on Mars?

    • Plants don't grow well in distilled water. Hydroponics requires a lot of fertilizer in the water to allow growth. Feces in is a limited supply.The nutrients have to come from somewhere.

  • by Daniel Matthews ( 4112743 ) on Thursday March 10, 2016 @08:03PM (#51675103)
    There is no such thing as soil on Mars or the Moon, soil contains humic acids (and their salts) plus glomalin and the numerous fungi that produce it. Not only do these clowns not know what soil is, they don't even seem to realise that you don't need to use soil to grow plants. What they need is the ability to inoculate a substrate with an ecosystem and keep it in balance, then the rest just happens naturally. What they should be looking at is how to use a solar furnace to convert extraterran regoliths into the equivalent of expanded clay beads or vermiculite etc. which can then be inoculated with an aquaponics ecosystem.
    • Naw, what you're describing is Dirt. Soil is what we build buildings on and it had defined engineering properties such as internal friction angles, various moduli of elasticity and compression, and other useful things. (aka, each discipline has it's own definition of what "soil" is - and to CEs it has nothing to do with biology ;-)

    • Where will the materials that we need to inoculate the media with come from. If it is from Earth it would be a lot of weight to transport to Mars and would need to be resupplied regularly.

    • Hmmm, "glomalin" is a new one on me - though since it wasn't discovered until 8 years after I finished my undergraduate course in soil science, that's less than surprising.

      Most people (including the civil engineer in this thread) don't appreciate how complex soils are, but forming a soil from the regolith ("broken rocks") already present on the surface of the Moon and Mars (and the Atacama, and Antarctica, and fresh volcanoes) isn't that hard. Yes, you'll need your "starter innoculants" of fungi, humus, or

  • Indeed, in the recent hit movie, "The Martian," Matt Damon's character grew potatoes to survive long enough to be rescued.

    So, umm, I guess that means that we have already proved it can be done????

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