Could we really grow potatoes on Mars? Scientists have taken to analyzing a movie called The Martian, starring Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut that manages to start farming and growing plants on martian soil.
- The Martian movie has sparked debates between scientists about the possibility of farmable land on Mars.
- The basic scientific principles on which the movie is based might be sound, but growing potatoes on Mars is still a longshot.
- The Soil Science Society of America will hold a conference with scientist James Bell about the possibility of farming martian soil.
The plot of the movie revolves around Watney’s actions and struggles to stay alive while stranded on the red planet and his ingenious methods of growing food there. Scientists have now started to analyze the science behind the movie to explain what is plausible and why.
In the movie, Damon’s character mixes martian soil with his freeze-dried feces (pardon the graphic expression, there’s just no way around it) and manages to grow potatoes. Mary Stromberger, a soil microbiologist at Colorado State University debates the possibility of that scenario. She says in theory the astronaut’s waste could have provided nutrients that could be used for growing plants.
But she goes on to explain that martian soil mixture he made in the movie would not contain the complex structure of microbes that earth soil has. Keeping that in mind there might be some problems with recycling the nutrients in between the atmosphere, the soil and the plants meant to grow there.
There is also no certainty that the bacteria in the feces could have thrived on Mars, not even in a controlled environment. Of course, in the setting of a sci-fi movie, even scientists agree that you can bend the rules. Had this really happened to Matt Damon or to a real astronaut, chances are he wouldn’t have been so lucky.
In the book that the movie is based on, the astronaut takes different steps to grow the plants, such as fertilizing and preparing the soil, but this has been cut out of the movie. However, according to the soil science community back here on earth, soils only exist on this planet, because the presence of life inside the earth is critical for it to be able to grow anything.
James Bell, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University, says that the theories on which the author of the book based his writing are sound, stating that a good soil for growing crops should be able to hold the plant up and provide nutrients for growth. However, the astronaut would be limited to resources found on the planet.
The movie has sparked some debate and Bell has actually been invited to the Soil Science Society of America to discuss his views on the topic and present a lecture entitled “Soils of Mars: Keys to Understanding the Habitability of the Red Planet”. Who knows if, a few years from now, the Matt Damon movie will be proven right after all.
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