Mars Exchange
Food for Mars: Cycling to Mars

Food for Mars: Cycling to Mars

by Natasha Schön on Tuesday, 26th April 2016 in Food for Mars, People, Wieger Wamelink

At last, a new experiment started and it feels good! We frequently cycle to Nergena, ‘our’ glasshouse complex, with strong headwind on the last stretch. Normally we, Joep helps out as well this year, see a western yellow wagtail on our way. In the glasshouse far away from the day to day fuzz, we fill pots with Mars and moon soil simulant and add seeds and, new this year, potatoes. This is the fourteenth post in a blog series about experiments conducted by a team of ecologists and crop scientists of Wageningen UR. The goal of these experiments is a proof of concepts for providing the first (human) Martians with ‘own-grown’ fresh food. Check out our earlier blog posts below!

Germination experiment
In the first experiment this year, we return to where we started: a germination experiment. The seeds grown last year on Mars and moon soil simulant (rye, radish, garden cress and pea seed) are being tested for viability. If the seeds germinate then we would have a full life cycle. This would be an important result, because then there is no need to bring new seeds for every crop cycle. The seeds of the four crops were sown on the same soils they were harvested from, so rye seeds from Mars soil simulant were sown on Mars soil simulant again and so on. One of the nice things of germination experiments is a swift result. We already know that seeds of all the four species germinated on all three soils, which is good news. However, it seems that seeds grown on earth control germinated better than on the moon and Mars soil simulants.

Heavy metals in the eatable parts?
The second experiment this year is much bigger and will last until the end of the summer. There will be a crop production of ten different species for one sole purpose: to find out if they are safe to eat. It is possible that the plants take up heavy metals like zinc, led, mercury or too much iro, which makes them inedible. This is important since cultivating inedible crops for (human) Martians does not make much sense. This year there are some species from last year, radish, pea, rocket, spinach, rye and of course the tomato, but there are some new species as well, such as green beans, carrots, and potato. The latter few will also be investigated by NASA in Peru, and yes, we also want to link to the movie The Martian.

Some of the crops need a lot of space for their roots. This is why we changed the trays from last year or the very small pots from 2013 to larger pots depending on the crop species. Potatoes and carrots go in large pots, cress and rocket in small pots. Just like last year, we mixed organic matter with the soils to mimic the addition of organic waste from a previous crop cycle. And every Friday extra nutrient solution is provided, mimicking the addition of nutrients from poop and pee. The end goal is to have a large harvest to produce enough food for the most exciting meal of this year, a Martian meal. If you want to join this meal, it is still possible! At the moment the potatoes, the green beans, the tomatoes and carrots are already in the pots. The rest will follow later in order for us to harvest all crops at the same time.

The Western subalpine Warbler
Is there any link between the subalpine Warbler and our experiment? No, none what’s-so-ever. Except, that one individual of this species (sixth siting in The Netherlands ever) chose to land in the Alterra ecological garden, of which I am one of the caretakers. A student found it during the campus challenge; a competition for students to spot as many species on the campus. It was immediately clear that this tiny bird would cause an invasion of bird-watchers in a vulnerable and still very wet garden. I was already called in the early morning by our press officer to come to the garden. A crisis team was formed, including a student to welcome the bird-watchers and the security team was set to high alert to oversee that everyone behaved properly. In the end we had to close down the garden and we estimate that over 3000 people payed a visit to the bird in four days. For four busy days I could not work on the experiment. So what is happening in the glasshouse? Are the potatoes already aboveground or did the tomatoes and carrots germinate?

Story contributed by Wieger Wamelink, a Senior Ecologist at Alterra (Twitter: Wamelink_wieger).

More Information:

This is the germination experiment with seeds from last years harvest on Mars soil simulant. Left to right rye, cress, pea and radish.

The first part of the experiment under a germination cloth with potatoes, carrots, green beans and tomato. In the front are the germination experiments in threefold (Mars and moon soil simulant, and earth control).

This is where the Western subalpine Warbler was flying around.

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