A positive development | Sunday Observer

A positive development

In the hit Hollywood movie, The Martian, Matt Damon’s character is stranded on the Red Planet after being separated from the rest of the crew following a massive storm. The others assume he is dead and decide to go back to Earth. However, our titular hero decides to stay on until he finds a way to call Earth or the spacecraft. He runs through the supplies in the base camp, but knowing very well that he cannot survive forever on the finite supply of canned food, decides on cultivating potatoes on Martian soil. His gamble somehow succeeds and he even proclaims that Mars has been officially colonized. Scientists now say, potatoes could actually be grown in greenhouses on the Red Planet.

Indeed, fiction sometimes turns out to be true and so it is in this case. If humans are ever going to colonize Mars, we need to make sure we can grow food (not just potatoes) locally on Mars. A team from the Wageningen University & Research has found that earthworms, a crucial part of making soil fertile, can thrive and reproduce in simulated Martian soil. These creatures play a key role in making Earth soil healthy by digesting dead organic matter and excreting a fertilizer-like substance that helps release nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. Their burrowing also helps lighten up the soil, allowing air and water to seep through better.

Let’s face it, the red dust that covers the surface of Mars is so barren and dry that scientists do not really call it “soil” : that word implies the presence of organic matter from plants and animals. The Martian surface is mostly dust and rock that won’t be much use to future Mars farmers without prior treatment.

Pig slurry

NASA found the closest match to Martian soil here on Earth to be volcanic soils from Hawaii. Manure is still one of the best fertilizers,while farmers on the Red Planet will probably have to use their own, like in the movie, The Martian, the Wageningen researchers used pig slurry in their tests. They added the manure to samples of the Mars simulant and samples of “silver sand” growing rocket salad, then compared the two.

After the rocket had germinated, the team added to some of the pots another crucial element: earthworms (should it be Marsworms on Mars ?). That is an important improvement for simulated Martian soil. Altogether, the tests showed that the combination of worms and pig slurry helped the plants grow in Martian soil and the worms not only thrived, but reproduced.

Microscopic life

This experiment raises mankind’s hopes for growing vegetables and fruit on the Red Planet in the future. In fact, food on Mars could be exclusively vegetarian due to problems associated with keeping livestock on a hostile planet. However, there is a distinct possibility of having artificial or 3D printed meat. As for veggies, rocket is not likely to be the only thing on the menu: researchers say, they had success with green beans, peas, radishes, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots and garden cress. After testing for heavy metals and alkaloids, the veggies were all deemed safe for human consumption.

The test has far reaching implications, with one caveat – we still do not know whether Mars harbours some form of life. If even microscopic life exists on Mars, will it be ethical or even dangerous to introduce life forms from Earth? Granted, the vegetables can be grown in sealed, climate-controlled and isolated facilities, but there is no guarantee of non-contamination in either direction. Thus, we have to know the answer to the question “does life exist on Mars?” before long.

A recent discovery lends credence to the possibility of microscopic life, if not intelligent life, existing elsewhere in the Universe. Bacteria discovered on the surface of the International Space Station may not be from Earth, a Russian cosmonaut has claimed. Anton Shkaplerov, an ISS expedition flight engineer has said, living bacteria harvested from the metal skin may be extraterrestrial. This discovery, if accurate, has profound implications for all beings on Earth and on our understanding of life itself.

Microorganisms from Earth have been found on the station’s skin before but they have got there thanks to the ionosphere lift phenomenon, where substances from Earth rise into the atmosphere. Shkaplerov said: “Bacteria that had not been there during the launch of the ISS module were found on the swabs. So they have flown from somewhere in space and settled on the outside hull.” Incredibly, bacteria found on the ISS can survive in a vacuum and temperatures ranging from minus 150 Celsius to 150 Celsius. Last month, it was reported that bacterial cells treated with a common antibiotic were spotted changing shape to survive while aboard the ISS. This shows that bacteria are an incredibly tough species that can survive the toughest conditions on Earth or in space.

Chance encounter

This is why scientists are scrambling to learn more about Oumuamua, (a Hawaiian word meaning “a messenger from afar arriving first”) the Earth’s first interstellar visitor, a 400 metre long cigar-shaped asteroid that has been travelling for billions of kilometres in deep space before a chance encounter with our Solar System. It is already on its way out of the Solar System, so there is only a tiny opening to learn more about this intriguing visitor.

It is likely to pass the orbit of Jupiter in May next year, at a speed of 138,000 Km/h. Some scientists have proposed to send a probe to study the asteroid, much like the Rosetta probe to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. However, speed remains a challenge, because the fastest man-made object in the universe, the Voyager 1, only has a top speed of 61,000 Km/h. But the reward will be immense, as we are not likely to get another such visitor for a long, long time.

There are those who say that such research has no use for, or bearing on, life on Earth. But, we are explorers by nature and there is no doubt we would eventually colonize Mars and even planets in other solar systems in the centuries to come. Mankind’s very survival may depend on colonizing other worlds, as famous scientist Stpehen Hawking predicted recently. (He says mankind has 5-6 centuries more until Earth becomes uninhabitable.) In this regard, it would help to know if food can be grown on other planets with hostile conditions such as Mars. This experiment is thus a first step towards a celestial journey.