Is Life On Mars Possible? Here's Why It's A Little Harder Than You Think

"The Martian" isn't quite in line with reality.

Life on Mars — our cute little red neighbor — is often portrayed much like any other space travel in film and television: relatively effortless, with beautiful people hopping around in their space suits and extending the grace of humankind to as-yet-untouched lands. This is all well and good for the purposes of space-related entertainment, but it doesn't take a literal rocket scientist to understand that every known place outside of our planet is actually pretty thoroughly inhabitable. Thanks to the blockbuster film The Martian, though, life on Mars suddenly seems as simple as just showing up via a six-month rocket journey shortened to a few minutes by film editing.

The Martian stars Matt Damon as NASA astronaut Mark Watney in an against-all-odds scenario: find a way to survive on the red planet by himself until a rescue mission arrives. Watney uses his knowledge as a botanist to "science the sh*t" out of his predicament, mixing his own feces with Martian dirt to grow potatoes. The film is full of wide-eyed adventure and humor, with Watney never really losing hope or showing the weight such total isolation must have on the mind (his crew leaves him behind after believing him dead in the midst of a brutal sandstorm).

So would his survival strategy work in real life?

It's no coincidence that The Martian's release coincided with the real-life NASA's announcement confirming the existence of water on Mars. If there's actual water on Mars and Matt Damon can grow potatoes on the seemingly barren planet, it stands to reason that we'll soon discover some Martians that have been hiding under a red rock all this time, right?

If only. Given the existence of water on the red planet and Watney's extreme life-hacking in The Martian, a debate has sparked among many researchers over whether such methods could actually work. "In theory, Watney's waste would provide nutrients for growing plants," soil microbiologist Mary Stromberger of Colorado State University recently said in a press release. "In reality, the Mars 'soil mixture' he made doesn't have the complex food web of microbes that we have on Earth. So, there might be some issues with the recycling of nutrients between soil and plants and atmosphere."

Unfortunately, that means those hoping to be among the first humans to go to Mars might have to adjust their expectations of having a private little garden in the backyard. 

But still, the possibility does exist.

Jim Bell, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University, said in the same release that Watney's formula in the film (and book of the same name) are on the right track. "A good soil for growing crops will have structure to hold the plant up, and provide the nutrients needed for growth. This is where Watney was headed in his 'soil recipe.' Of course, he had to use only the resources with him on the planet," he remarked.

So while the jury is still out on exactly what kind of farming can be done, it does seem as though life on Mars could be supported if the right kind of soil can thrive there. It wouldn't be nearly as easy to pull together as The Martian makes it seem, but it's not totally out of the realm of possibility, and after all, the film isn't a documentary, it's a sci-fi flick.

And as Bell said, "you can only include so much information in a movie lasting a little over two hours." The majority of which is already dedicated to Damon talking throwing shade at disco.

Cover image: Flickr