Plants of lettuce, chili peppers, and radishes grew in a mix of asteroid dirt and peat moss. Astronauts may one day eat salad grown on an asteroid.

asteroid soil.
Steven Russell, an astronomer, holds a container of fake asteroid soil and peat moss, with a chili pepper seedling peeking through. TODAY WITH MIKE HESS/UND

Researchers report in the July Planetary Science Journal that romaine lettuce, chili peppers, and pink radish plants all grew in peat moss and asteroid soil mixtures.

Previously, scientists grew crops in lunar dirt (SN: 5/23/22). The new study, however, focuses on “carbonaceous chondrite meteorites, which are known to be rich in volatile sources — particularly water,” according to astroecologist Sherry Fieber-Beyer of the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. These meteorites and their parent asteroids are also high in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, all of which are important agricultural nutrients. Pulverizing these asteroids, possibly as part of space mining efforts, could provide a ready supply of farming material in space.

Fieber-Beyer purchased a material that resembles the composition of space rocks and gave it to her graduate student Steven Russell. “I said, ‘OK, grow me some plants.'”

Russell, who is now an astrobiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, chose a radish, lettuce, and chili pepper that have all grown aboard the International Space Station. He, Fieber-Beyer, and their colleague Kathryn Yurkonis of the University of North Dakota compared how the plants grew in only asteroid soil, only peat moss, and various combinations of the two.

Peat moss loosens the soil and improves water retention. The plants grew in all peat moss mixtures. Faux asteroid soil, on the other hand, compacted and couldn’t retain water, preventing plants from growing.

Fieber-Beyer will then experiment with growing hairy vetch seeds in that asteroid dirt, letting the plants decay, and then mixing the dead plant matter throughout the soil.

This, she claims, will prevent the soil from compacting. Furthermore, seeds are much lighter than peat moss, making them easier to transport to space to aid in future farming attempts.

Reference :doi: 10.3847/PSJ/ac74c9.

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