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'The Martian': Is Farming Actually Possible On Mars?

Nov 02, 2015 10:49 AM EST
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In The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) uses his knowledge of botany to grow potatoes and lengthen his food supply while stranded on Mars. His scientific methods were accurate, but researchers from the American Society of Agronomy  (according to a news release) are curious to see if it's actually possible to farm on Mars, a planet known for its rocky, nutritient-poor soil.

"The theories behind what [The Martian author] Andy Weir wrote in his book are sound," Jim Bell, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University, said in the release. "A good soil for growing crops will have structure to hold the plant up, and provide the nutrients needed for growth. This is where Watney was headed in his 'soil recipe.' Of course, he had to use only the resources with him on the planet."

When growing potatoes on Mars, Watney mixed his freeze-dried feces with Mars soil. Essentially, his feces contained nutrients necessary for plant growth, which the Mars soil simply did not have. While it is not common to use feces on Earth due to concerns of spreading bacteria, this did not worry Watney. This is because his body has already adapted to fighting any bacteria his feces may be carrying.

"In theory, Watney's waste would provide nutrients for growing plants. In reality, the Mars 'soil mixture' he made doesn't have the complex food web of microbes that we have on Earth," Mary Stromberger, a soil microbiologist from Colorado State University, explained in the release. "So, there might be some issues with the recycling of nutrients between soil and plants and atmosphere. And, we don't know if the fecal bacteria could thrive on Mars, even in a controlled environment....On the other hand, he had to use what was there, and this is a sci-fi movie!"

Other complications Watney faced were creating water and carbon dioxide for his plants. While creating water involved some tricky chemistry, the carbon dioxide was not such an issue, since Watney grew his plants inside the Hab -- the temporary artificial habitat on Mars -- and exhaled sufficient amounts of carbon dioxide himself, according to Weir's novel. 

To ensure plentiful growth, Watney also made sure to rotate and fertilize his crops during his three-year stay on Mars. Potatoes were his chosen crop because they are sturdy plants and they had been sent with the crew in order to properly celebrate Thanksgiving while on their Ares III manned-mission.

"The soil science community has defined soils to exist only on planet Earth, because the presence of life is critical," Harold van Es, from Cornell University, added.

Bell will discuss the possibility of soils' existence on other planets and the potential of using them to farm at the Soil Science Society of America's International Year of Soils celebration. The United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of Soils in order to bring attention to the problems facing diminishing soil resources worldwide, the release noted.

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