A Little Red on the Red Planet

In 1969, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong proved that humans could indeed step foot on truly foreign soil. Since that day, the idea of being able to step onto the surface of a different world hasn’t seemed quite so far-fetched. NASA, the European Space Agency, the Russian space program, and more recent arrivals like the Chinese National Space Administration have been dreaming of daring trips beyond Earth’s boundaries.

Most of these programs are pointed towards the one planet in our own solar system that most closely resembles our own – Mars. Beginning with Mariner 4 in 1964, we have been quietly amassing a great deal of information about the Red Planet on everything from atmospheric behavior to water sources to carbon dioxide. Landers have sent back reams of data on surface conditions, including a detailed look at soil composition.

That soil analysis is one of the keys to long-term visits to Mars (or, in the most daring visions, full settlement). Think Mark Watney trying to grow potatoes in the Martian soil. While Watney’s trip may have lasted a tad bit longer than planned, the need to have plants that could survive and even flourish on Mars is more than just a plot twist. It could be the difference between simply more robot visitors and the first humans taking up residence.

The good news – all that soil analysis means you can now buy your own Martian-type dirt. Scientists developed this soil reproduction in the hopes of encouraging anyone with an interest in space travel to have a go at trying to grow plants in the arid red substance. Groups around the world have taken advantage of this with some pretty good results so far. One group in the Netherlands was able to grow radishes, tomatos, peas, rye and cress. (Sounds like our fearless first Martians will be eating a lot of salads….) And best of all, none of the plants had abnormally high levels of heavy metals that would be hazardous to human health.

What caught our eye in all this was a more recent study at Villanova. As you might expect,  most of the plants that were studied were those that are high in nutrition, easy to transport, and less picky about growing conditions. Think kale and soy. (More salads….) But since this particular study was left in the hands of undergraduate college students, you can imagine that a few more unusual items made it into the study.

It turns out that one of the best performers was hops. Yes, hops, that ingredient in beer that gives it the bitter flavor so beloved of suds lovers around the world. It’s a striking image – future astronauts growing hops on the red planet, reaping the harvest that can be used not only to provide a nutritious grain in the diet, but also a wonderful way to relax after a hard day of collecting rock samples. And imagine, being able to enjoy a tall, cold beer made on Mars while you sit in your living room back on Earth, binge-watching Futurama.

All of which leads us to the inevitable question – can Martian wine be far behind? After all, there are those grapes out there that thrive in dry, harsh conditions and love soil that is heavily laden with minerals. It’s the ultimate test of terroir – and we can’t wait.

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