Martian soil 'good enough for asparagus'

Bad for strawberries, great for asparagus and turnips. This is the small-print for gardening enthusiasts buying a second home on Mars, should the day ever arrive when humans colonise it.

Scientists in charge of analysing soil lifted from the surface of the planet by the Nasa space probe Phoenix have admitted to being “flabbergasted” by initial results, which suggest it would theoretically be just about perfect for certain vegetables that thrive in mildly alkaline conditions.

The tiny sample of soil – one cubic-centimetre – was lifted from the planet’s surface with a robotic arm. It was then mixed with water on board the lander to create a kind of Martian mud suitable for chemical analysis. Phoenix set down on the planet last month.

Most scientists had long assumed there would be little on the surface of the planet that would be hospitable to supporting life. But last week they were forced to change their thinking.

“We have found what appear to be the requirements, the nutrients, to support life whether past, present or future,” said Samuel Kounaves of Tufts University near Boston. “The sort of soil you have there is the type of soil you’d probably have in your back yard.”

The pH level of the sample was somewhere between 8 and 9, with 7 considered neutral. This would seem perfect for growing asparagus and other vegetables, such as green beans, that do not do well with acidity. This does not mean that dropping seeds now would produce a vegetable patch, given everything else about the planet’s environment, including, of course, the lack of water.

Even the water question has been the subject of excitement since Phoenix began its work. In an earlier experiment, soil was heated on board the lander to 1,800F, which resulted in the release of water vapour. This suggests that this part of the planet at least was in contact with water at some point, although nobody can say when that was or the volume of water involved.

“This soil clearly has interacted with water in the past,” said William Boynton, of the University of Arizona, who led the water content experiment. He added that it could have come in dust particles blown from a different part of the planet.

But it was the vision of potted asparagus in Martian mud that was commanding the widest attention. “We’re flabbergasted by this data,” Dr Kounaves said. “There’s nothing about it that would preclude life. In fact, it seems very friendly.”

Other minerals found in the sample were magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride ions, making it similar to soil found in Antarctica.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Admin Assistant

£12000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An expanding Insurance Brokerag...

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Mechanic / Plant Fitter

£24000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Lancashire based engineeri...

Recruitment Genius: Service Advisor

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

Recruitment Genius: Service Advisor

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders