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Geologists simulate soil conditions to help grow plants on Mars

Tuesday, October 27, 2020 - 1:06pm
By:
Alan Flurry

Manned missions to Mars, much less permanent human settlement, will require scientific breakthroughs in many fields including interstellar agriculture. Growing food presents one of the primary challenges to sending human crews to the Red Planet. The last decade of Martian surface exploration has expanded the understanding of the chemistry of its atmosphere and surface.providing valuable knowledge that support research for growing food extraterrestrially.  With this knowledge, University of Georgia geologists have developed several artificial soil mixtures, called simulants that mimic a variety of Martian surface materials:

To do that, they developed artificial soil mixtures that mimic materials found on Mars. In a new study published in the journal Icarus, the researchers evaluated the artificial soils to determine just how fertile Martian soil could be.

“We want to simulate certain characteristics of materials you could easily get on Mars’ surface,” said Laura Fackrell, UGA geology doctoral candidate and lead author on the study. Simulating the mineral makeup or salt content of these Martian mixtures can tell us a lot about the potential fertility of the soil. Things like nutrients, salinity, pH are part of what make a soil fertile and understanding where Mars’ soils are at in that spectrum is key to knowing if they are viable and if not, are there feasible solutions that can be used to make them viable.”

Using what we know

In the last decade, Martian surface exploration has expanded the understanding of the chemistry of the planet’s surface. Using data taken from NASA’s surface samples, the team studied regolith, or the loose material near the surface, to develop the simulants. The materials used mimic mixtures of soil, clay minerals, salts and other materials obtainable from Mars’ surface by scooping loose material or mining it from bedrock.

Despite its thin atmosphere, extreme cold and low oxygen, Mars’ surface is known to contain the majority of plant essential nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

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Image: Artist's rendering, courtesy of NASA.

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