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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been gearing up for human exploration of Mars by 2030. The recent movie The Martian, starring Matt Damon, has shown that survival on Mars, despite hefty obstacles, is possible—if we can grow plants on the Red Planet first, that is.

At first glance, Mars’ climate may seem extremely hostile to any form of plant life. Temperatures only max out at 20 °C (68 °F) at the equator, and bottom out at -153 °C (-243 °F) at the poles. Mars is also further away from the Earth, meaning that if plants were to grow on Mars, they would either be smaller or face lengthened growth times. However, Mars lacks oceans, which has an effect on the planet’s weather patterns. The available data also shows that weather on Mars is easier to predict because it tends to repeat more consistently, meaning crops could be more easily rotated to accommodate for the weather.

Bruce Bugbee, Director of the Plants, Soils and Climate Department at Utah State University, has said that growing plants on Mars is very possible with current technology. “I have a long-term relationship with NASA to help them develop biological life support systems for space. And that includes Mars, it includes living on the space station, it might include living on the Moon. Any place that the goal is to be as independent from Earth as possible,” he said. Bugbee has already experimented with lettuce, and the results showed that space-grown food is as good as their counterparts grown in the ground on Earth.

Bugbee mentioned that hydroponics would play a big role due to the lack of water (or, more likely, access to it) on Mars, and that there would have to be controlled humidity, temperature and carbon dioxide levels in a closed environment. When asked what effect gravity would have on the plants, Bugbee said that Mars’ reduced gravity could be beneficial to the plants. “When you think about going into space, everybody thinks it’s about the lack of gravity and what’s that gonna do. But, as far as we know, from many years of studying this, the lack of gravity doesn’t hurt plants at all. In fact, we think they might even grow better because there’s no gravity pulling them down,” he said.

When asked if The Martian was scientifically accurate about growing plants on Mars, Bugbee said they were pretty close. “I could nitpick it and say this wasn’t exactly right and that isn’t exactly right. But, the concept is correct. He can grow potatoes like he did, and he can grow them from recycled waste. And, it’s possible to live up there a long time. So, the concepts were all correct,” he said.

Bugbee said, however, that it would not be possible to directly grow them in Martian soil initially. “It’s mostly iron oxides. And iron makes stuff red, like rust. So it would be pretty hard to just take soil the way he did in the movie and put a little bit of composted human waste on the plants, and magically grow these great potatoes,” he said.

However, Bugbee said that in theory, Martian soil could be used to grow plants. “You would normally grow the plants in hydroponics. So you have some sort of liquid media, and we wouldn’t initially use any Martian soil. But after we conditioned the soil, the way you condition the soil on Earth for a garden, then you could grow plants in it,” he mentioned. However, there was no mention of a time frame or a method on how to condition Martian soil to grow plants grown on Earth.

The solution could be a concept called terraforming, or the alteration of modifying a planet’s atmosphere, temperature, surface topography or ecology to be suitable for human habitation. Several methods include sublimating carbon dioxide to raise the atmospheric pressure of the planet, importing ammonia or other hydrocarbons, reducing the albedo (diffuse reflectivity or reflecting power of a surface) of the planet to utilize the sunlight to warm the atmosphere, or building bio-domes full of oxygen-producing substances such as cyanobacteria and algae to harvest oxygen directly on Mars, which will allow longer visits to the planet.

However, scientists have estimated anywhere from less than 1,000 to 100,000 years of terraforming for suitable human habitation. It will take time to grow a garden on Mars, and it will initially have to be done in a closed environment, but through the terraformation route, plants can eventually grow directly in Martian soil.

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