Red Thumbs: Villanova Students Finding What Foods May Successfully Grow in Martian Soil

Red Thumbs: Villanova students finding what foods may successfully grow in Martian Soil

Mars may become humankind’s next home address if planned space missions to the Red Planet are successful. One of the most important aspects of establishing a self-sustaining colony in the inhospitable Martian climate will be to provide a sustainable food source by growing plants in sheltered greenhouses. Villanova University students engaged in a project as part of a fall undergraduate astrobiology course played a part in learning how to do just that.

As participants in the “Red Thumbs Mars Garden Project,” the students of Edward Guinan and Scott Engle, professors in the department of Astrophysics and Planetary Science, have, since last September, planted, grown and tested a variety of vegetables and herbs in the University’s greenhouse using Mars regolith simulant, an iron rich basalt with reagents added to closely approximate the chemical content of Martian topsoil. Based on Mojave Mars Simulant (MMS) developed at the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Mars regolith simulant is 90 percent similar to regolith found on the surface of Mars, excluding poisonous perchlorates found on the planet’s actual surface.

Tasked with growing plants that are nutritious and grow well, the students included carrots, spinach, lettuce, dandelions, kale, soybeans, peas, mint, onion, garlic, potatoes and, for good measure, hops—an ingredient needed to brew beer—in their experiment.

The project, which concluded in December 2018, tested the plants in a number of growing conditions—using chemical and organic fertilizers, varying light conditions, and in comparison to identical “control plants” grown in Earth soil/humus.

The winners? Basil, kale, hops, onions, garlic, lettuce, sweet potatoes and mint thrived. Spinach and peas—not so much. Results are still out on other vegetables that are in varying stages of growth. Plans are underway to continue and expand the study during the spring semester. Professor Guinan made a presentation about Villanova’s “Red Thumbs Mars Garden Project” at the American Astronomical Society’s Winter Meeting January 12.

Watch the video below to learn more about Professor Guinan's latest collaboration with his students.