Mars Exchange
Food for Mars Q&A with Wieger Wamelink - Part 2

Food for Mars Q&A with Wieger Wamelink - Part 2

by Natasha Schön on Thursday, 3rd March 2016 in Food for Mars, People, Wieger Wamelink

In the past year we have introduced Food for Mars , 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. These posts have sparked a lot curiosity, which is why we asked what questions you have surrounding about growing food on Mars. We gathered your input and posed your questions to Wieger Wamelink, a Senior Ecologist at Alterra. Here is the second part of the top questions and his answers!

I'd like to try to grow tomatoes, for instance, in low-light Martian-like soil to see how well they do without additional light. Has anyone tried growing plants with reduced atmospheric pressure as it would be there, or, presumably, the greenhouse would be pressurized AND let in whatever light was available. Every answer seems to lead to more questions! - Steve Nelson

Yes, and more questions leads to more research, and I like that. I know NASA is working on low pressure crop cultivation and it seems that they reached 10% of the earth pressure, with lots of watering problems, however Mars pressure is only 0.6% of earth pressure and I do not think that it is possible for plants to grow under those conditions. So we will have to go indoors and belowground applying led-lights with a normal earth-like atmosphere. About the light intensity, see my blog about ‘the students effort’ where Wouter van As (college student) did an experiment with Martian light intensity. That is about 60% of what we recieve on earth, but way more than plants receive in forests.

I think before anybody embarks on this folly we need to observe a group of "astronauts" living in a contained environment for, say, five years growing their own food within their contained environment and living only on the food that they can produce. - Kristofers Džons Akenfelds

How true, and this has been done already in some experiments in domes on Earth, but they all failed more or less, as far as I know, especially because of a lack of oxygen production. Nevertheless these experiments will continue. And even though this is not my expertise, that oxygen issue is easily solved by making oxygen. Almost all rocks, also on Mars, contain oxides from which oxygen can be subtracted, and on Mars there is a lot of iron oxide, better known as rust, and oxygen may be won from this (beside the iron of course). And the biggest experiment, in which all of us are involved in, is living on planet Earth, which is also a closed system. How we are doing that I will leave to all of the readers.

Has aquaponics been considered as a method for growing food on Mars? - Dillon Reilly

Yes it has, amongst others such as my colleague professor Leo Marcelis, a adviser to Mars One. And it is one of the ways we should go forward with in my opinon. It also helps against spreading the risks, because if something goes wrong on the soil we still have water culture or substrate culture.

Another option to analyse all samples for heavy metals could be to hire a portable XRF that is calibrated for vegetation. - Electra Navarone

Maybe it can be sent to Mars. Working at Wageningen University and Research centre, apparently the best agricultural university in the world ((;-)), I have all kind of possibilities for analyses and equipment.

Will the perchlorates in the soil effect the plants? Or do you have a way to remove them once inside the greenhouse? - Ethan Zapdos Rickman

Perchlorates are toxic for plants and thus even more hazardous than contamination salt waters and seas we have on Earth, even though perchlorate crop growth looks possible (there is some research on this topic in Wageningen). I would try to get rid of the perchlorate by filtering it out, which is not that complicated. It's better to find places with less perchlorate. The water that was discovered on Mars was liquid and that could only be due to the presence of high concentrations of salts in the water, since ice may contain less perchlorate. Moreover, I was a bit surprised that the focus of the finding of liquid water on Mars was on the perchlorate and not on the presence of all kind of essential nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium. That was much more important to me!

What is the martian soil stimulant used to grow the tomatoes? - Stephan Mason

It is delivered by Orbitec, that sells it on behalf of NASA, who harvested and purified it. It originates from a Hawaiian volcano and is judged to be closest to what can be found on Mars.

I have a two part question. 1) Considering your success with tomatoes, would you now move on to other night shades or another variety of fruit or vegetable? 2) Will the CO2 usage combined with O2 production possibly lead to a planetary atmospheric change, conducive of human life in a Marian ecosystem? - Annony Mous

We will continue with the tomatos, but also include the potato and probably change from rye to wheat or triticale (grown commercially all over Earth).

For now I see indoor growth and belowground. So the Martian atmosphere will not be changed for this. ‘Terraforming’ on Mars is not foreseen by us. Before this could be done, at least the issue why Mars has lost almost all its atmosphere has to be solved.

My students want to know if any livestock will be brought to Mars or will the people that settle there have to be Vegans? - Deborah Coyle

If I would go I would miss my meat….sorry for all the people that think you should be vegetarian. The latter makes sense because the production of meat asks for a lot of resources, vegetables, and thus space and energy. One could settle for insects since we need them also for pollination and they are very effective in transforming green matter into animal proteins. The other option I see are chickens. They eat almost everything, including plant wastes, provide eggs, produce waste that can be used for manuring, and are funny and thus can serve as companions and comfort people.

I didnt understand about the soil condition. How did you fake it like a martian soild. And the lights too. I would like to have this data. Thanks and hugs. Biologist here! - Phillipe Knippel

See the questions above in regards to your question about the soil. NASA has done many experiments on Mars and used satellites and telescopes etc. on Earth to analyse the soil properties. We know very well what the composition of Martian soil is. Then they went looking on Earth and found similar soil on a volcano on Hawaii. This is what we use. For instance, we know that the martian soil contains ironoxide, rust, and that is why it is red. This is similar to the soil we use. However, NASA never tested yet what happens when you add water to Martian soil, and that is what I do for plant growth, so I am not entirely sure that this will give the same result as on Mars. This can only be solved if soil is brought back to Earth or we go over there and do the tests. The light is normal Earth light and lamp light, since we will grow crops indoors independent from the Martian sun. More information can be found in our article from 2014 in Plos One (Wamelink et al. 2014 http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0103138).

Thank you all for all your interesting questions. Feel free to contact me, e.g. via the facebook page or the blog. Also visit our crowdfunding campaign for this year's research, see the first link here below.

Greetings (or groetjes),

Wieger

Dr. ir. G.W.W. Wamelink
Senior Ecologist
Alterra P.O. box 47
6700 AA Wageningen
The Netherlands

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