Forget about growing potatoes! ALFALFA could be the key to agriculture on Mars, study finds

If humanity is ever to make the interplanetary leap from Earth to Marchthen the ability to grow food will be vital.

Matt Damon found a way in the 2015 blockbuster The Martian, managing to survive on potatoes during the fictional storyline.

Now that vision may be a little closer to reality, after American scientists discovered that alfalfa plants could be the key to growing healthy vegetables on the Red Planet.

They discovered that alfalfa grows well in volcanic soil that mimics Martian regolith, and that alfalfa could then be made into fertilizer to help grow turnips, radishes and even lettuce.

The researchers also used a marine bacterium to remove salt from salt water.

Together they say it shows that it is possible to use the resources of Mars to cultivate and grow plants and support human missions and permanent settlements.

Food on the Red Planet: Matt Damon found a way to grow plants on Mars in 2015 blockbuster The Martian (pictured), managing to survive on potatoes during the fictional storyline, and now making a reality can come a little closer after scientists discovered that alfalfa plants may be the key to growing healthy vegetables in regolith soil

Scientists have found that alfalfa (pictured) grows well in volcanic soil that mimics Martian regolith, and that alfalfa could then be made into fertilizer to help grow turnips, radishes and even lettuce.

Scientists have found that alfalfa (pictured) grows well in volcanic soil that mimics Martian regolith, and that alfalfa could then be made into fertilizer to help grow turnips, radishes and even lettuce.

Lunar soil could be used to convert CO2 into oxygen and ROCKET FUEL to power future missions to Mars

Lunar soil could potentially be converted into rocket fuel to power future missions to Mars, a new study you found.

Analysis of dirt granules brought back by China’s Chang’e 5 spacecraft has revealed that regolith on the moon contains compounds that convert carbon dioxide to oxygen.

The soil is rich in iron and titanium, which act as catalysts under sunlight and could convert carbon dioxide and water released by astronauts’ bodies into oxygen, hydrogen and other useful by-products like methane for power a moon base.

As liquefied oxygen and hydrogen make rocket fuel, it also opens the door to a lower-cost interplanetary gas station on the moon for trips to the Red Planet and beyond.

Martian regolith soil is mostly made up of volcanic rock basalt, which is poor in nutrients and poor at retaining water due to the lack of organic carbon.

Additionally, most of the surface water on Mars is locked in polar ice caps, while any liquid form is likely to be very salty, making it unsuitable for growing food plants.

To find out how Martian resources could be used for food production, researchers at Iowa State University planted turnip and alfalfa seeds in pots containing crushed basalt rocks, designed to mimic Martian soil.

While the turnip plants grown in the basalt were stunted and produced small discolored leaves, the alfalfa was able to thrive without the need for additional fertilizer.

The researchers then decided to test whether alfalfa could serve as a nutrient source for other crops grown in the simulated soil.

They used turnips, radishes and lettuce because these plants all have a very high harvest index, low water uptake, short growth cycle and require little attention, making them sources of desirable foods during Martian habitation.

They found that the growth of all three types of plants was stimulated by adding alfalfa to the soil.

Turnip plant growth increased by 190% and produced healthy bulbs, while radish bulb and lettuce leaf biomass increased by 311% and 79% respectively.

Turnip grown in basaltic regolith treated or untreated with alfalfa simulating soil and watered with fresh water.  Turnip plants grown in alfalfa-treated soil experienced a 190% increase in growth and produced healthy bulbs

Turnip grown in basaltic regolith treated or untreated with alfalfa simulating soil and watered with fresh water. Turnip plants grown in alfalfa-treated soil experienced a 190% increase in growth and produced healthy bulbs

Next, the researchers studied how these crops could be watered on Mars.

They created a brackish solution to simulate water on Mars, then added a marine bacterium called Synechococcus, which is known to desalinate very salty water.

Within four weeks, the salinity of the water was reduced by about 32%, but it was still too salty to produce healthy crops.

So they filtered the solution through basalt-like volcanic rocks, which further reduced the salinity.

When the filtered solution was used to water turnip and radish plants growing in soil simulating regolith treated with alfalfa, both grew healthily.

The dry weight of turnip plants increased by 278% and the fresh weight of radish bulbs increased by 1.047%.

Researchers filtered brackish water that had been treated with Synechococcus bacteria through basalt-like volcanic rocks, which further reduced salinity

Researchers filtered brackish water that had been treated with Synechococcus bacteria through basalt-like volcanic rocks, which further reduced salinity

Growth of turnip plants after six weeks in alfalfa-treated basalt regolith-simulating soil watered with filtered or unfiltered biodesalinated water, or soft water (control)

Growth of turnip plants after six weeks in alfalfa-treated basalt regolith-simulating soil watered with filtered or unfiltered biodesalinated water, or soft water (control)

“One of the great challenges of future human missions to Mars is the complexity of sending the necessary consumables from Earth,” the researchers write in their paper.

“An alternative approach is to produce consumables using in-situ Martian resources.

“We report simple and effective strategies for treating basaltic regolith soils and brackish water simulants, and demonstrate that treated simulants can support normal growth of food crops.

“This study means that for long-term purposes, it is possible to treat soil and water resources for agriculture on Mars in situ to support human missions and permanent settlements.”

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

NASA plans to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s after its first moon landing

Mars has become the next giant leap for humanity’s exploration of space.

But before humans arrive on the Red Planet, astronauts will take a series of small steps as they return to the moon for a year-long mission.

Details of a mission to lunar orbit have been revealed as part of a timeline of events leading to missions to Mars in the 2030s.

Nasa presented its four-step plan (pictured) which it hopes will one day allow humans to visit Mars at the Humans to Mars summit in Washington DC yesterday  This will involve multiple missions to the moon over the next few decades

Nasa presented its four-step plan (pictured) which it hopes will one day allow humans to visit Mars at the Humans to Mars summit in Washington DC yesterday This will involve multiple missions to the moon over the next few decades

In May 2017, Greg Williams, Deputy Associate Administrator for Policy and Plans at noseoutlined the space agency’s four-step plan that it hopes will one day allow humans to visit Mars, as well as its expected timeline.

Stage one and two will involve multiple trips to lunar space, to allow for the construction of a habitat that will provide a resting place for the trip.

The final piece of hardware delivered would be the current deep space transport vehicle which would then be used to transport crew to Mars.

And a year-long simulation of life on Mars will be conducted in 2027.

Phases three and four will begin after 2030 and will involve sustained crewed expeditions to the Martian system and the surface of Mars.