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Science and Technology Focus: To sustain life on Mars we need to grow alfalfa crop as they survive in the hard volcanic soil

Once we’ve overcome all the challenges of getting to Mars, we’ll need to figure out how to sustain life there – and growing and growing crops will be a major part of that. As you know if you’ve seen Matt Damon’s fights in The Martian, the red planet’s landscape could theoretically grow crops, a possibility supported by NASA experiments. But it wouldn’t be nearly that simple. Not only are gravel and dust devoid of organic matter and beneficial microbes, but they are also full of salts and minerals that make most plants struggle to survive.

Now, a new study suggests a way forward: alfalfa plants. The researchers found that this forage crop would be able to survive in the hard volcanic soil like the one that covers Mars and could then be used as fertilizer to grow food like turnips, radishes and lettuce. “The low nutrient content of Martian soil and the high salinity of water make it unsuitable for direct use to grow food crops on Mars,” the researchers write in their published paper.

“Therefore, it is essential to develop strategies to increase the nutrient content of the Martian soil and desalinate the salty water for long-duration missions.” Previous research has shown that plants will have a real struggle to grow on the surface of Mars without additional nutrients being added to the soil (or regolith) in which they are placed. Alfalfa plays a role in this. Getting an exact match for regolith on Mars is tricky, but scientists put together the best approximation they could before testing different seeds in it.

They found that alfalfa was able to grow as healthy as it did in terrestrial soil, without any additional fertilizers. The simulated Martian regolith was then tested with alfalfa added as fertilizer. Turnips, radishes, and lettuce three low-maintenance, fast-growing plants that don’t need much water have all been successfully grown. But there was a catch: we also needed fresh water. Based on further experiments, the team believes that the salty water available on Mars could be treated with a type of marine bacteria and then filtered through volcanic rock to produce the fresh water needed to grow crops.

“We report for the first time the integrated use of biofertilizer and microbes for the efficient treatment of basalt regolith soil and saltwater simulants, respectively, for appropriate resources that sustain plant growth,” the researchers write. Many questions still need to be answered, not the least of which is how exactly we can replicate Martian soil here on Earth. Chances are, when we finally get to the red planet, the surface regolith won’t be exactly what we assumed.

The simulated soil also lacked some toxic perchlorate salts, which would have to be somehow washed out of the Martian soil with desalinated water. However, the experiments outlined in this study give scientists and astronauts other promising options to explore. The approaches described by the researchers are easy to implement and effective in operation.

Growing alfalfa on Mars for use as fertilizer would certainly cost less than transporting huge refrigerators of food over millions of kilometers to the red planet – and it’s not the only source of nutrients we might be able to produce outside of Earth. “This study means that for long-term purposes, it is possible to treat soil and water resources in situ for farming on Mars to sustain human missions and permanent settlements,” the researchers write.

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