In The Martian, a science fiction book by Andy Weir and a Hollywood movie blockbuster, note Watney is stranded top top Mars after ~ his fellow NASA astronauts think he died and also left the Red world without him. Watney is left with space suits and a controlled-environment habitation module (or Hab), but he walk not have actually enoughfood and water to survive until NASA sends a rescue mission.

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Several years might go by when Watney waits to be rescued, and many things might go wrong. Because that example, if the mechanism that offers him with oxygen stop working, Watney might die, because the environment of Mars does no contain sufficient oxygen for people to survive. The good news is that Watney, who is a botanist, has actually some potatoes in the Hab that he have the right to use come produce more food as he waits because that NASA to rescue him. The poor news is the Mars is a desert planet, where no plants have ever grown before.

In the story, Watney’s botany skills help him survive the ordeal. He offers the potatoes NASA packed for his Mars expedition together with his own feces and manages to prosper potatoes in a small farm inside the Hab. Also, his understanding of chemistry permits him to make water, i m sorry he provides to water the potatoes.

Improvising a Martian potato farm and also producing water from scratch sound more fiction than science. But research argues that part soils top top Mars might be offered to thrive plants.

So, how exactly did Watney fertilize Martian soil? Is it possible to make water ~ above Mars?


Earth-like planet

Even despite Mars has an environment that is harsh because that life together we know it, it appears to be the most habitable earth in our solar system, as well as Earth. Follow to NASA, billions of years ago, Mars also had seas like ours own. Some places on earth have been used to examine Mars, because their environments are somewhat comparable to problems on Mars. Parts of Antarctica, Hawaii, and also South America are examples of such places.

Scientists have been examining Mars since the at an early stage 1960s. They have sent small spacecraft that flew by, orbited, and landed top top Mars. These spacecraft uncovered that although some areas on planet look like Mars, the Red world is undoubtedly a harsh setting for life.

The environment on Mars has about 95% carbon dioxide, which would certainly make it impossible for humans to breathe. Mars is also much cooler than Earth. This is mostly because the Red world is farther away from the sunlight than Earth. NASA’s Viking mission, which landed on Mars in 1976, recorded median temperatures of –81 ºF, i beg your pardon is cooler than either the phibìc or south poles right here on Earth. If exposed to Mars’s temperatures, plants, humans, and other life beings would freeze.



Fertilizing Mars

Research says Martian soil has some of the nutrients plants have to grow and also survive (see “Plants’ Nutrients,” right). But due to the fact that of Mars’s very cold conditions, tree such together Watney’s potato would require to flourish inside a controlled environment, such together his Hab. Also, just like on Earth, nutrients in Martian soil might vary from ar to place. So, people stranded top top Mars have to be all set to rotate to ingenious means for do the soil more suitable for plant growth—even if the just option is utilizing their very own feces, as Watney did.

When soils space rich in nutrients—such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and also potassium—crops grow well. Yet when the soils are not as rich—with even just among the required nutrients in low supply—plants would certainly not grow as well. Fertilizers aid farmers to double or triple their crop yields and contain 5% or much more of main plant nutrients. These fertilizers additionally supply nutrient to the plants that some soils perform not have.

Here ~ above Earth, professionals encourage making use of organic waste, or manure, to fertilize soil, back U.S. Eco-friendly agencies control the usage of manure to avoid transmission of viruses and also bacteria that can contaminate harvests. other sources of nutrients, such together organic food waste, are likewise useful. The is why, for example, some human being mix banana peels or coffee grounds right into soil in your gardens.

On Mars, Watney did no have any kind of man-made fertilizers easily accessible to him. He was not planning to stay there for a long time, allow alone having actually to farm yard there, for this reason his feces acted together organic garbage that consisted of nutrients. In fact, in earlier times, when modern technology was much less advanced, farmers provided their very own sewage to carry out important nutrients, such as nitrogen and also phosphorous, to their land.



Thriving on essential nutrients

To create the power they should live, plants usage a procedure called photosynthesis, which is a series of chemical reactions that convert water and also carbon dioxide right into sugars and oxygen. These chemical reactions have the right to be summarized in the following way (in this case, the street is glucose (C6H12O6)):

6 CO2 (g) + 6 H2O (l) ⇾ 6 O2 (g) + C6H12O6 (aq)

To lug out photosynthesis, plants also need assorted nutrients, such as nitrogen, potassium, and also phosphorus. Nitrogen is a an essential component the chlorophyll, the compound responsible for the green shade of plants and also for capturing the light necessary for photosynthesis. Potassium helps to open and close tiny pores in leaves and also stems the take in the water and the carbon dioxide offered in photosynthesis. Phosphorus is connected in the chemical reactions that comprise photosynthesis.

In contrast with plants, human beings and animals can not harvest solar energy. Instead, humans acquire it from eating food, which originates from animals and plants and also provides the energy we must survive. Animals additionally get their energy from tree or other animals that eat plants. In that sense, every little thing we eat was when a plant.



Growing plants on Mars

It is not basic to predict what we will certainly or will not have the ability to do when we collection foot ~ above Mars. But as far as the chemistry the was performed in The Martian, Watney’s scientific method checks out. Scientists have conducted plant experiment simulating Martian conditions using volcanic soil in Hawaii, i m sorry is recognized for that similarity to Martian soil. This experiments found that plants deserve to actually prosper in these soils.

There space other facets future Mars explorers will require to take into consideration when growing plants on that planet. As mentioned earlier, Mars’s environment is mainly carbon dioxide, and also plants need this gas just as much as we need oxygen come breathe.

Also, studies indicate that watering tree on Mars might require less water 보다 on Earth. That is due to the fact that water would certainly flow in different way through the Martian soil, thanks to the Red Planet’s gravity, which is around 38% that of Earth’s. In various other words, anything on Mars would certainly feel about three times lighter than on Earth. Therefore, under Martian gravity, the soil can hold an ext water than on Earth, and water and also nutrients in ~ the floor would drainpipe away an ext slowly.

Some conditions would make it complicated for tree to grow on Mars. Because that example, Mars’s too much cold temperatures do life difficult to sustain. Sunlight and heat getting to that earth is much much less than what the planet gets. This is since Mars is around 50 million miles farther away from the sun. Also, the Martian atmosphere is no as thick together Earth’s atmosphere, which keeps our world warm.

In The Martian, as soon as Watney coincidentally exposes his farm to Mars’s cold temperatures, his potato plants freeze come death almost instantly. As pointed out earlier, Mars’s open up air is just too cold for plants come survive.


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Making water on Mars

Water accessible from the Hab was not enough to sustain Watney or his farm until NASA rescued him. However, Watney was clever sufficient to think of a means to do water from scratch and also irrigate his potatoes.

Making water does no sound like a facility process: take it oxygen, add hydrogen, and burn them with each other to create water. But Watney did not have actually hydrogen in ~ his disposal. The oxygen, top top the other hand, was easy to get. The Hab’s oxygenator liberated oxygen from the plentiful carbon dioxide in Mars’ atmosphere.

To attain hydrogen, Watney used hydrazine (N2H4), an inorganic compound widely provided to propel rockets, satellites, and also spacecraft the was obtainable from his mission come Mars. He had actually hundreds that liters the unused hydrazine. Watney dissociated hydrazine into nitrogen and hydrogen, and then, he shed hydrogen through oxygen, which brought about water, as follows:

2 H2 + O2 ⇾ 2 H2O

Is it feasible to develop water indigenous scratch? not really, because creating water from scratch by burning hydrogen and also oxygen would be too dangerous. It goes there is no saying: You should not shot burning hydrogen and also oxygen in ~ home. Watney had actually no other easily accessible option, and also he was extremely cautious to burn hydrogen and also oxygen slowly sufficient to avoid blowing self up.

Mars is taken into consideration the following frontier in human space flight. Researchers think the Red Planet can host or have hosted life numerous years ago. That is the closest human being to united state that can host life, also if they room microbes. By the moment humans set foot top top Mars, you might be in the course of astronauts selected for your journey right into the Red Planet. Watney had a difficult time during his visit to Mars, however it was chemistry that at some point saved his life!


Selected references

Weir, A. The Martian. Brand-new York: Crown Publishers, 2014.

Kinberg, S. (Producer); Scott, R. (Director). The Martian . Joined States: 20th Century Fox, 2015.

Mars: excessive Planet. All about Mars. Mars Exploration. National Aeronautics and space Administration: http://mars.nasa.gov/allaboutmars/extreme/ .

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Hooper, R. The Martian: The science of making it through a room Catastrophe. New Scientist, Sept. 25, 2015: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn28238-the-martian-the-science-of-surviving-a-space-catastrophe/ .