If you ask Wieger Wamelink, any successful Mars mission will need a heck of a lot of worms. So while Elon Musk has plans for colonizing Mars, he’ll need to leave room in the glove compartment of his Tesla spaceships for some of the little wigglers.
Wamelink is an ecologist that studies why particular plant species will grow easily in one place, and not at all in another. The last few years had him researching an answer to a single question: Could some plant species grow on dirt from Mars? And although he could ask Matt Damon, Wamelink is dedicated to the real science of it.
Wamelink filled a greenhouse with three sets of pots: some with lunar dirt, some with Martian dirt, and some with coarse, nutrient-poor Earth dirt. Working with ten crops—radishes, chives, and arugula—he enriched the soils with dead plant parts, mimicking what might happen in a successful Martian garden scenario. In the Mars soil, “all the plants did well except the spinach.”
While the results have been promising, soil alone can only do so much. A sustainable Martian farming ecosystem would also need to involve fungi, bacteria, and pollinators such as bees and butterflies. (Incidentally, Wamelink is betting on bumblebees: “you can keep them in hibernation,” he says, so they’d easily survive the rocket trip.)
But the most important ecosystem member? Earthworms. So Wamelink is replicating harsh Martian dirt in a terrarium on his desk. He has dropped in several types of earthworms to test if Earth’s little wigglers are able to hack it.
You can follow the experiment’s progress on the lab’s Facebook page. Wamelink has a sneak peek for the curious though: “They are still alive,” he says. “They really seem to like it. They seem to be very happy.”
Creating a Home on Mars
But why this talk of earthworms? Well, we’ve talked about the stepping stones that it will take to place humans on Mars. We’ve explored how to establish a basic outpost. And we’ve learned that it’s expensive and will take time, even if we start in earnest today.
But we haven’t talked about what it would take to build a home there. Sure, we mentioned the rotation of any orbital habitants to replicate the 1g gravity of Earth, insuring children have strong bones and musculature, but we haven’t really talked about creating a culture there.
Millions of humans on Mars would need the same things they need on Earth, and I’m talking about things higher up of the hierarchy of needs than food, shelter and water. They’ll need health care, for example, so click through the sources below if you are interested in sickbay medicine.
And they’ll need things that are harder to measure yet are vital for a meaningful existence. They’ll need purpose for certain. But there will be plenty that needs to be done in a Mars colony, so meaningful work shouldn’t be hard to find.
Humans are need meaning. We’ve previously discussed potential religion on Mars because Martian sporting leagues ultimately won’t provide the depth of meaning necessary and a Netflix binge is only a distraction from weariness of the soul.
Ultimately, we’ll probably want to make it look like a home as well, so research into terraforming is promising. From triggering the Martian magnetic field with controlled asteroid impacts to atmospheric precipitation and gas dissociation platforms, the future of Mars has been imagined as Cloud City as well as the Seattle Underground.
Click below for more on terraforming and astrobiology. I, for one, am counting on the earthworms and bumblebees. We don’t always do well in creating community-minded culture here on Earth but Mars is literally a clean slate. Let’s do something amazing there.
Read More of our “Nerds in Space” Series
- Establishing a Budget and Timeline
- The Stepping Stones that Will Take Us to Mars
- Traveling far
- Establishing an outpost
- Terraforming a home
- NASA: Astrobiology Primer
- Academia: Terraforming: The Future & Adventure of Human Civilization
- Aerospace Research Central: Space Medicine: Medical Astrosociology in the Sickbay
- Research Gate: Tailored Force Fields for Space-Based Construction
- NASA: Guidelines and Capabilities for Designing Human Missions