In the 2015 film “The Martian” (based on Andy Weir’s novel by the same name), astronaut Mark Watney is injured and lost in a storm and ends up being left behind on Mars.
Watney survives his intial injuries and is able to make it back to the “Hab” base. Realizing he will need to survive for four years with less than one year of food, Watney devises a plan. Watney, a botanist, then builds an ingenious farm inside the Hab using composted excrement and moisture produced by extracting and oxidizing hydrogen from rocket fuel. Potatoes that had been brought to Mars for Thanksgiving dinner were used as the only crop.
In the movie, growing crops on Mars worked, though it required some pretty cool science to pull it off. But that is just science fiction, isn’t it? As it turns out, Martian agriculture could be a real thing.
Apparently scientists have also been wondering if agriculture would be possible on Mars. Researchers recently grew 10 different crops in soil that mimicked the soil on Mars. Tomatoes, rye, peas, leeks, chives, quinoa, cress, garden rocket, spinach and radishes were all able to grow in soil like that found on Mars, though growth was slightly less than the crops grown in normal earth soil.
Considering the time and expense involved in going to Mars to grab a bucket of dirt, researchers instead opted for an earth-sourced soil sample that is similar to Martial soil. A volcano in Hawaii provided the Mars-equivalent soil for the experiment, while soil from the Arizona desert provided similar soil to that found on the moon for another experiment. In case you are wondering, the Mars-like soil produced a better crop than the moon-like soil.
While the agriculture experiment did use soil like that found on other planets, it did not attempt to simulate the climate. Researchers figured any attempts at agriculture on Mars of the moon would be conducted indoors anyway—like Watley did in “The Martian.” The experimental crops were grown in a greenhouse with stable environmental conditions.
Whether the food is safe to eat is another question. The simulated soils contain high levels of heavy metals that may be absorbed into the plant. This is sort of an important detail as it would be a bummer to grow a bunch of Martian veggies only to have them be poisonous to humans.
So while it may be a while before any large-scale agriculture happens on the red planet, it looks like Martian agriculture could be a real thing.