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Can We Vermicompost on Mars?

With Space X and Boeing now committed to making it to Mars, the idea of developing life support systems that can support human life becomes essential. Composting our waste materials would allow us to recycle the nutrients back into the system, which is  essential to a successful Mars mission.  

The Birth of Worms in JSC Mars-1 Soil

The first step has been accomplished and announced on November 27, 2017. Biologist Wieger Wamelink, a Dutch researcher at Wageningen University, announced the birth of two worms from a colony living in soil created by NASA to simulate the dirt found on Mars. This is a major breakthrough, proving that worms will at least eat and breed within this heavy-metal soil.  

Wamelink's team used a sample of soil from NASA called JSC Mars-1 (or Mars 1A), which was developed at NASA's Johnson Space Center in 1998 and is used to simulate the chemical and mechanical properties of Martian regolith for research. The team added pig manure slurry to the mixture and then live adult worms. Given a bit of time, two baby worms were born.  
We at Nature's Little Recyclers are excited about this, as this is a major first step in composting in space, and we offer our congratulations to Wamelink on his accomplishment, wishing much success in his continued studies.  

What Are the Next Challenges?  

Wamelink points out that a closed agricultural ecosystem is necessary to feed future humans on Mars. In this case, it will be necessary to keep every nutrient in the system, which is something worms and their associated bacteria do very well. With this, human poop, plant parts, and food waste can be cycled back into the soil creating a virtuous cycle. Worms begin the breakdown of organic matter, which is continued by bacteria. That leads to the release of vital plant nutrients -- such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium -- according to Wageningen University and Research. 

The researchers also found that the holes that worms dig in the soil aerate the mixture and improve the soil's structure, making it easier for water to penetrate the soil and nourish plants. This is the same as on Earth. It is likely they will find that it also holds moisture, giving the root system better penetration and improving the plant's ability to take up nutrients.  

The needs of vermicomposting include feed stock, moisture, and temperature. By controlling these three factors, the colonists can provide ideal conditions for life. With the knowledge worms can live and breed in the soil, we can deal with the other major factor -- the heavy metals.  

Space biologist Trent Smith, who manages NASA's Exploration Mission 1 and helped create Mars 1A, says that they've been able to accurately replicate Martian soil based on spectral imaging of the planet, but the faux soil is still missing one key compound found on Mars -- perchlorates. The chemical class is created on Earth by certain industrial activities, but researchers haven't yet been able to replicate it accurately in the simulated Martian soil. 

Microbes survive well in perchlorates, and it's still possible for plants to grow in soil containing the substance, both Wamelink and Smith say. But the compounds can be lethal to people who consume them or eat plants grown in them. Studies do indicate that percholates can be dangerous to worms, leading to their demise. This will need to be treated, as we do know that worms can absorb heavy metals and remove them from soil. So they will need to develop a system for helping worms and bacteria process the percholates over a period of time.  

So Is It Possible to Vermicompost on Mars?  

The first hurdles are in, and the answer is a tenative yes. There is still a long way to go, but with research done by dedicated scientists like Biologist Wieger Wamelink, the first Mars colony could include worms, ones ready to make life better and easier for our first colonists. 

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