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Growing Produce on Mars

If humans ever colonize the moon or Mars, one of the most critical challenges will be figuring out how to produce food in entirely new environments.

In 2021, the Idaho Space Grant Consortium offered mini grants to youth groups interested in addressing the challenge of growing produce in space. Marilyn O’Leary, 4-H program coordinator for University of Idaho Extension in Payette County, jumped at the chance to get Payette County youth involved.

“If we do ever colonize the moon and Mars, then we’re going to have to provide food for people,” O’Leary said. “So, this project was about making people think outside the box. And that’s what I tried to push with the kids too.”

The grant included samples of Martian soil and a few parameters, such as a requirement that at least 50% of the soil used for an experiment be Martian soil. Youth were also required to wear gloves and respirator masks while handling the soil and were instructed to not eat any of the food produced from the soil.

“They were really surprised by the soil,” O’Leary said. “It’s a real fine, almost powdery soil. Kind of like an alkaline soil.”

The entire project spanned six weeks, with participants planting corn and pumpkins seeds in fiber trays, then recording the pH, soil moisture, amount of light, and plant height each day. Each participant selected a different combination of soil for the project and O’Leary was surprised by the results of one 12-year-old participant, Ocie.

“Ocie used the soil that was four parts Martian soil to one part potting soil,” O’Leary said. “Ocie’s seeds were the first to sprout, which was really surprising to me. Her plants looked the best all the way through.”

Most plants sprouted within 10 days and all seeds sprouted by day 12. Ocie’s plants had the highest average pH at 8.0 and grew the tallest, with the corn measuring at 23 centimeters and the pumpkins at 37 centimeters.

Rayden, an 11-year-old participant, noted that his 50/50 mixture of soil was easy to work with but harder than normal soil and needed a little more water.

“This was a fun experiment for the kids in growing plants with different mixtures of soil,” O’Leary said. “They also learned about some of the issues that arise and the conditions that plants need to survive. They all observed that after about four weeks of watering, the soil started forming a crust that needed to be broken up or the plants died.”

Another participant, 8-year-old Liam, met an unexpected obstacle in his experiment.

“Liam went on vacation over a weekend and when he came home the dog had eaten the top of his corn,” O’Leary said. “He was so devastated.”

Galactic Quest

O’Leary paired the soil project with another space-themed project from National 4-H called Galactic Quest. The project explores the history of humans in space, the technology and resources needed for missions, and obstacles humans encounter in orbit. Activities explored physics and engineering, computer science and space agriculture.

O’Leary and the youth participants had six project meetings where they would discuss how their plants were growing, then complete one of the Galactic Quest activities which ranged from building a telescope and engineering a mechanical arm to harvest crops in space, to computer science coding activities to learn about cyber security and protecting assets in space.

“It was really about preparing youth to work in space and solving some of the space challenges,” O’Leary said. “I think the whole thing really spurred their interest in space and gave them something to think about that they hadn’t thought about before.”

O’Leary is planning another project with the Martian soil for youth which will be paired with a Martian Base Camp challenge kit starting in May and continuing through the summer.

“We are excited about this series of projects and are hopeful that more Payette County 4-H members will participate in the next adventure we take into space,” O’Leary said.

Young boy planting seedlings into fiber trays.
Participants planted seven pots of pumpkin and corn and measured growth over six weeks.
Young boy poses with plant sprouts.
Liam chose a two-parts Martian soil to one-part potting soil, with corn growing to 35.5 cm and pumpkins to 21.5 cm.

Article by Amy Calabretta, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

Photos provided by Marilyn O'Leary

Published in April 2022

University of Idaho Extension

Physical Address:
E. J. Iddings Agricultural Science Laboratory, Room 52
606 S Rayburn St.
Moscow, ID

Mailing Address:
University of Idaho Extension
875 Perimeter Drive MS 2338
Moscow, ID 83844-2338

Phone: 208-885-5883

Fax: 208-885-6654

Email: extension@uidaho.edu

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Barbara Petty