I want to be a space scientist when I grow up, but first, I want to do an experiment at home. I want to find out if we can grow plants on Mars. So, to test this, how can we make a small Mars at home?
Chris - My name is Chris McKay. I'm a Planetary Scientist with NASA Ames Research Centre. I'm interested in Mars and particularly the question of life on Mars.
The question for today is, can plants grow on Mars and how could we simulate that here on Earth?
Well, I think there's two parts to that question.
The first part is, the soil on Mars. Could plants grow on that soil? Well, the best analogue we have on Earth for Mars soils is volcanic rocks – soils that have been produced from volcanic rocks. So, we could go to Iceland or Hawaii and collect some soils that have come from ground of volcanic rocks and use those as Mars analogues. And folks who have done that, it’s pretty easy experiment to do and try it. I think you'll find that most plants go fine in that kind of soil.
The other question though is about the environment of Mars. The temperature is very low, the atmosphere is very thin, and the atmosphere is carbon dioxide, very different from the Earth’s atmosphere. We can simulate those in the laboratory of course with a vacuum chamber and a big freezer.
We can get a sense of how to simulate those at home in your freezer. It’s cold, not as cold Mars, but almost as cold as Mars, and certainly, too cold for plants to grow. We can also simulate the low pressure by taking a small jar, putting water in it, boiling the water which will drive off the air, drive away the air, fill the atmosphere with water. We then seal that small jar and cool it. The water will condense creating pressures very much like the atmosphere of Mars. So, we can create low pressure environment, put in the freezer, now you have low pressure cold. We want to have CO2 in that as well. Instead of water, maybe we could try something like carbonated drink like Sprite. Then as it boils, it’ll put out water and CO2, drives away the air, we seal it, the water condenses creating a low pressure and there's a small amount of CO2 left.
Voila! A little bit of Mars in the freezer, low pressure cold!
Plants won't grow in that. We know that in order for plants to grow, it’s got to be a little thicker, a little warmer, maybe something in the refrigerator instead.
I've wondered about that a bit.
For some candidate organisms, maybe look at some of the creatures surviving in Antarctica?
There is likely to be some rather savage chemicals in Mars soil, like Perchlorate (ClO4). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_on_Mars#Phoenix
You might consider Halicephalobus mephisto, or the "Devil Worm", and the associated subterranean rock eating bacteria that it feeds on. CliffordK, Sun, 3rd Feb 2013
We are at the moment conducting an experiment to see if plant species can germinate and then grow on both Mars soil and Moon soil. For this we use artificial soil, made in the US. It is possible to buy this and it is not very expensive. We only look at the soil, we assume that there will be an earth atmosphere. On Mars and the Moon this may be done in spheres. We will supply nutrient free water to water them, which probably will be present on the Moon and Mars. What is missing then is nitrogen, essential for growth, but we will also use species that can use nitrogen from the air. Wieger, Thu, 7th Feb 2013
how about nitrogen? Plants need nitrogen. How much nitrogens are in Mars' soil??? poopa, Mon, 18th Nov 2013
There is one thing that hasn't been mentioned. Even if Plants wouldn't Grow in Martian Soil (On Mars under it's particular Conditions), there Could be a Chance that Some Plants Could Grown in That same Soil under Earth's Own Conditions, even if not in (Controlled/Uncontrolled) Simulated Martian Conditions On Earth. GALAXY-VOYAGER (aka: GALAXY_VOYAGER), Thu, 4th Dec 2014