Out of this world: 'Moon and Mars veggies' grow in Dutch greenhouse
Establishing a human colony on the Moon and travelling to Mars has been the stuff of dreams since the dawn of the space age.
But these visions face many hurdles. How can humans survive for months or years in the ultra-hostile environment of space? What, for instance, will they eat?
Agricultural researchers at a Dutch university say they are taking the first steps towards providing an answer.
They are growing vegetables in soils similar to those found on the Moon and Mars, looking for ways of helping space pioneers grow their own crops.
"When people go to the Moon and Mars they also have to eat, and it's easiest for them to grow their own food," said Wieger Wamelink, surrounded by several dozen plants in a special greenhouse at Wageningen, an agricultural university in central Netherlands.
"We wanted to use real Martian and lunar soil," to see if plants would actually grow in it, Wamelink told reporters.
Of course, getting real lunar and Martian potting soil is an impossible ask. But an Internet search revealed an unlikely supplier: NASA.
The US space agency makes ground similar to that on the Moon from sand found in an Arizona desert, while Mars' crimson "soil" is scooped from a volcano in Hawaii, Wamelink told reporters.
The first experiments started in 2013 after Wageningen received an order of 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of NASA's imitation "space soil"—at a hefty price of 2,000 euros ($2,285).
Wamelink stuck tomatoes, peas, cress and other plants in pots containing the simulated soil... and crossed his fingers.
To work in this soil "was very special. Nobody, not even NASA, could tell us what would happen," even just by simply adding water, he said.
The imitation ground at first was a little "reluctant" to absorb water, but soon turned out to be good potting soil.
Like the actor Matt Damon in the science fiction movie "The Martian", Wamelink watched with amazement as his "space veggies" grew bigger day-by-day.
"Especially in the Martian soil, plants were growing very fast and very good. They even started to flower, something that we never anticipated," Wamelink said.