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Photo Credits: 20th Century Fox

Remember when The Martian came out and people thought it was based on a real story and raged at NASA for leaving Matt Damon there to die? Well, to be fair, the film and book did do a good job of explaining how his character would survive there. Now if only we could also figure out a way to keep Matt Damon from requiring rescue all the time...

For decades now, the colonization of Mars has been a dream for many people, especially when it was first discovered that the little red planet would be our best chance at an alternative home. That dream has only become more urgent with the growing recognition of global warming. While Mars can never replace Earth or even fix the problem of overpopulation unless a significant breakthrough is made in space travel, it can still help us advance further as a species.

Early colonizers likely won’t be returning to Earth anytime soon, if ever. So in addition to a large supply of food, they would also need to be able to self-sustain, such as by starting to grow crops as soon as they arrive. Now the question remains on whether the Martian soil would be suitable for growing plants or not. We know that it does indeed contain all the elements required for them based on the data gathered from the Mars rover, but the challenge lies more in whether those elements exist in the right quantities for plants to flourish—whether plants would absorb too many of the heavy metals in the soil and perchlorate salts which carpet the Martian landscape and are toxic to humans.

When NASA first discovered that the soil contained 0.6 per cent perchlorate salts, first they looked it up because, like us, they didn’t know what perchlorates were. Perchlorates are salts that interfere with iodine bonding, which can heavily damage the thyroid and mess with one’s mood. A concentration of 0.6 per cent is far higher than what the FDA regulates, but that isn’t too much of an issue since perchlorates would not be absorbed by plants, making the solution to simply wash whatever these astral immigrants might be growing. Hell, even if they didn’t wash it, tests show that they wouldn’t be ingesting enough for it to have any effect, taking into account that people would eat a lot less food there due to the weaker gravity requiring less calories to do work.

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Photo Credits: Wageningen University

Dutch scientists such as Wieger Wamelink, who is from the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, have used replicated Martian soil created by NASA to confirm that radishes, peas, tomatoes, and rye are safe to eat when grown in Martian soil, with no heavy metals absorbed. While this doesn’t confirm whether other crops might absorb dangerous amounts of heavy metals, ones that do can be used to essentially cleanse the dirt of them.

Of course, the plants wouldn’t grow in the open environment as we are nowhere near ready to terraform Mars, but they would be in greenhouses that would regulate their environment and keep harmful ultraviolet light away.

The next step is to compare these plants’ viability to that of those raised in soil from Earth, and to choose the best fertilizers for the situation as the soil there would not have the bacteria necessary to turn nitrogen in the air into protein, but if The Martian is anything to go by, anyone who has seen it knows what the best choice might be.

(Spoiler Alert)

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It’s shit.

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