Red Thumbs: Villanova students find what foods may successfully grow in Martian soil

Mars Garden

Growing food on Mars is not just a plotline in the 2015 film The Martian—students in the Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences are proving its potential success.

Edward Guinan, PhD and Scott Engle, PhD, professors in the department of Astrophysics and Planetary Science, began the “Red Thumbs Mars Garden Project” to research the feasibility of growing sustainable food sources in sheltered greenhouses on the Red Planet. In fall 2017, the professors invited students to participate in the project through an astrobiology course.

“I got the idea from a NASA news release about growing ‘veggies' in the International Space Station,” Dr. Guinan said. “There are plans for SPACE-X Mars and NASA to establish human colonies on Mars within the next 10 to 20 years. To be self-sustaining, colonists would have to grow some supplemental food in heated, pressurized greenhouses and under reduced Martian light conditions.”

The students planted, grew 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 developed at the National Aeronautics and Space Agency and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 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.

“The whole project was fascinating.” said Tasha Boland ’18 CLAS. “The biggest surprise was how well the plants grew in the martian simulate soil and coffee grounds mixture. For the first several weeks, the plants in that soil mixture grew faster than the plants in the Earth soil."

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. Dr. Guinan and Dr. Engle plan to expand the study, allowing more students to participate in this innovative research.

Dr. Guinan describes the Red Thumbs Mars Garden Project."