Wormen voor Mars: 'To chew where no Earthworm has chewed before'
Crowdfunding for Wageningen University & Research
‘To explore the potential of nature to improve the quality of life.’
This is Wageningen University & Research's mission. We are a research institution that focuses on the domain ‘healthy food and living conditions’. We do not just develop top-quality expertise; we also help translate our knowledge into practice worldwide. Support our projects and contribute to the quality of life.
Worms for Mars
Several groups as NASA, Elon Musk and Mars-One are planning to bring the first people ever to Mars around the year 2030. A Return to the moon is anticipated within five year and at least ESA and China are working on plans for a moon station. If people will go it will be for longer periods or even for a permanent stay. These human Martians or Lunarists will have to eat. Especially for longer stays food will have to be grown at the spot to feed the inhabitants.
What is already done?
Three experiments were carried out (in 2013, 2015 and 2016) to investigate if it is possible to grow food on Mars and moon soil simulants provided by NASA. In 2015 we could harvest the first tomatoes, radishes and rye. In 2016 we were able to harvest ten different crops, including the above mentioned crops, but also beans, peas, carrots and potatoes. Because there are heavy metals present in the soils we had to test the vegetables, but luckily they turned out to be save to eat. This paved the way to the first ever ‘Martian diner’ based on the grown crops for our crowdfunders.
Now it is time to set the next step. Just growing crops is simply not enough. All non-eaten parts of the crops have to be returned to the soil and broken down so the nutrients will be released again for the next generation of crops. What we actually need is a small sustainable ecosystem that also is able to deal with the inhabitants poop and pee. A crucial part of the ecological chain is the earthworm. It will eat the organic matter, chew it to small parts and mix it with the soil. Bacteria can then break it down further. Worms also dig burrows and by doing so they aerate the soil and make it possible for water to enter the soil easily. All this is essential for an abundant crop harvest.
What are our plans?
We are going to test if the earthworms are able to survive in the Mars and moon soil simulants and if they will do their job. Especially the moon soil has sharp edges due to their origin. Because of the absence of weathering on the moon and limited present day weathering on Mars the sharp edges do not get smoothened. When the worms eat the organic matter they will also eat the soil and mix the remnants with the soil. However, sharp soil edges may seriously harm the worms gut. Also the present heavy metals in both soils could harm the worm on the long term as well. First goal of this experiment is to see if the worms are able to live in the moon and Mars soil simulants. Second goal is to investigate if the worms can do their job; digest organic matter and mix it with the soil and digging burrows.
If the worms perform well than the bacteria can finish the job, closing the nutrient cycle and thus bringing the Mars settlement one step closer.
Does Earth profit?
What we are trying to do is to build a sustainable agricultural ecosystem that can function on Mars and the moon. It has to be build from scratch. On Earth we are experiencing more and more problems with our agricultural ecosystem; soil conditions tend to worsen, leading to a lower crop production. Insight in the agricultural ecosystem and how to build one on Mars or the moon (indoors) may help to see why agricultural ecosystems suffer on earth.
Mars and the Moon resemble dessert like situations. By learning how to grow crops on these soils beginning from scratch we may also learn how to do this on Earth. Knowledge from the first experiments already helped out in plans to regreen two desert areas on earth.
Donate and Join us on our journey to Mars and the moon!
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