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Worms born in Martian soil suggest farming on Mars is possible

Published Nov 28th, 2017 7:26PM EST
mars worms
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

The prospect of a human colony on Mars has rapidly moved from science fiction to reality in recent years, with space agencies like NASA, ESA, and others openly discussing the possibility of manned missions to the red planet and eventually the establishment of full-on settlements. Of course, a self-sustaining Mars colony would need the same things we need here on Earth, including the ability to farm, and scientists in the Netherlands are now reporting that they’ve taken a big step towards that goal by successfully getting worms to reproduce in Mars-like soil.

The soil, which was developed by NASA to be as close as possible to what space travelers would be working with on Mars, was mixed with pig manure and then “seeded” with adult earthworms. Overcoming several potential dangers, the worms managed just fine, and soon the scientists discovered baby worms which had been born in the soil simulant.

At present, the best bet for farming on Mars appears to be taking the dusty surface material and mixing it with human feces. Pig manure was used as a stand-in for human excrement in the experiment, but the researchers believe it will be essentially the same, and the worms further process the mixture and aid in the soil’s ability to sustain plant life.

It might sound fairly obvious that organic matter like feces would serve to turn Mars dirt into farm-ready soil, but the experiment worked even better than the scientists dreamed. Some of the potential dangers pitfalls of the experiment, such as the sharp edges of the martian dirt, could have dramatically halted the work and killed off the worms entirely, but the little critters were able to overcome it and do their vital work anyway.

Future plans for Mars missions vary in scope, ranging from a manned orbiting spacecraft to the building of living quarters right on the surface of the planet. It will likely be at least another decade before even the most modest of manned Mars missions gets off the ground, but once man sets foot on the red planet, things could move very quickly. Now at least we know that when we arrive, worms should feel right at home.