Research scientist Wieger Wamelink and student Line Schug of Wageningen University & Research have been conducting research into finding suitable locations to grow vegetables on Mars. Using data from a series of maps of Mars, they drew up a 3-D map showing the best sites for growing vegetables on this faraway planet. Information about suitable cultivation sites is crucial for the possible colonisation of Mars, because growing food crops will be one of the key tasks for the first astronauts.

To obtain the necessary data, the research team made use of several maps of Mars that were made freely available by NASA, Arizona State University and JPL. “This research was made possible by the abundance of data about Mars that is now available,” explains Wieger Wamelink.

Key figures from outer space

The maps used by Wamelink and Schug provided insight into such information as the mineral composition of the soil and the presence of heavy metals. In addition to this, they also provided information about the calcium content of the soil, the climate and temperature, the terrain elevation and the radiation levels on the planet.

No open field cultivation

According to the data gathered by Wamelink and Schug, they were able to calculate the suitability for growing crops for each location individually. Food will, however, be grown indoors on Mars because the outdoor circumstances on the planet make growing crops in the open field impossible. “There is almost no atmosphere, the outdoor temperature is 50 to 60 degrees below zero on average and cosmic radiation is intense,” explains Schug. Growing vegetables will therefore probably be easiest underground.

Positive cultivation factors

Despite the fact that crops cannot be grown on Mars in the open field, the terrain conditions and the temperature will nevertheless have an impact on choosing the best possible site for plant growth. “High levels of heavy metals in the soil and strong radiation make a location unsuitable for growing vegetables,” says Schug. “Relatively high temperatures or calcium content and a relatively flat terrain are positive environmental factors with a view to establishment and growing vegetables.”

Landing site

An inventory made by Wageningen UR reveals that a number of favourable sites for vegetable cultivation overlap sites where landings have been made, or are planned. This is good news for projects whose objective is the colonisation of Mars. If the planet were to be colonised, it is crucial that vegetables are grown near the landing site. The 3-D map created by Wamelink and Schug shows that the Mars Pathfinder and Viking 1 both landed on sites that are suitable for growing crops.

Food for Mars and Moon

Charting out suitable locations for growing food on Mars is part of an overarching research project called ‘Food for Mars and Moon’, and for which Wageningen UR is investigating possibilities for growing vegetables on Martian and lunar soil. Up until today, the University succeeded in growing ten different types of vegetables on Martian and lunar soil simulants.

Source: Wageningen UR. Photos: SAIC.