Science - February 27, 2018

This is where Martian vegetables grow best

Roelof Kleis

Where on Mars would a little vegetable garden fare best? This question was answered with the first Mars landing map ever. Made in Wageningen.

© Line Schug

At first is seems a well-implemented PR campaign: a Mars landing map. But initiator Wieger Wamelink, known for his project to cultivate vegetables on Martian and Lunar soil, swears that this is not the intent. Norwegian master’s student Line Schug knocked on his door for an internship. After some discussion, they decided she would examine the soil conditions on Mars, as seen from a ‘plant’s eye view’. ‘A subject I had wanted to tackle for a long time anyway’, Wamelink says.

And so, Schug’s assignment became: find out what part of Mars’ surface has an environment that is the most favourable for a vegetable garden. This basically makes it a horticultural map. Many factors were involved and considered. The composition of the soil, obviously, the contents of Ca, Mg, P, etc. But also the presence and absence of substances that one would prefer to avoid as much as possible, such as heavy metals, chloride, and very importantly: perchlorate.

wonen op Mars.jpg

And to determine all of this, you do not need to go to Mars. Information is freely available from organisations such as NASA and Arizona State University. Thanks to satellite images, we know Mars’ soil almost as well as our own. Schug collected the necessary data and rated each separate characteristic of the soil and the local conditions for horticulture with a grade between one (unsuitable) and ten (excellent).

In all, she produced over thirty maps, one for each factor. When put together, these maps produce a complete image: the landing map of Mars. The best spots for gardening and establishing a colony are the blue areas on the map. The map also projects the landing spots of completed and future missions. Mars Pathfinder and Viking 1 landed on favourable horticultural spots. MSL Curiosity and Viking 2 did not.

The conditions are difficult even at the best of spots. Living on Mars would be far from a vacation.
Wieger Wamelink

The horticultural quality of the soil was not the only aspect studied when determining the right spots to land. Other matters such as the cold, radiation and terrain conditions were also involved. To give you the right idea: plant cultivation on Mars will always take place inside or even underground. The conditions are extremely barren: -50 to -60 degrees Celsius, intense radiation and an almost complete lack of atmosphere. This would make it impossible for an ‘open air’ garden to exist. Wamelink: ‘The conditions are difficult even at the best of spots. Living on Mars would be far from a vacation.’

Besides the map, moving images were also created. GIS specialist Henk Kramer, a colleague of Wamelink, used the most recent application of the ArcGIS program to produce a 3D video of the Mars landing map. The map is part of the Wageningen project Food for Mars and Moon.

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