Can Plants Grow On Mars?

Since the industrial revolution in the 18th century, countries around the world gradually developed machinery to increase the production of goods. As factories were spontaneously constructed throughout developing nations, the demand for energy to power these machines also soared. However, this was not a problem for many nations, as there had been an abundance of coal and other fossil fuels for millions of years. There is no way that harvesting and combusting these fossil fuels to mass-produced goods for society would have any drawbacks, or would it? As of recent years, climate change has been a huge concern around the world as problems including natural disasters have become more frequent. The number one cause for the deterioration of our planet is the excess build-up of greenhouse gases caused by the combustion of fossil fuels to release energy.

While many governments and organizations are trying to revert our actions to save our planet from the catastrophe which is bound to happen at this rate of global warming, there is still the possibility that we are too late and the Earth itself will become uninhabitable. . Moreover, with the increase in human population reaching almost 8 billion as of 2021, humanity must find a new habitat to survive. This leads many scientists and organizations to question the possibility for humans to inhabit Mars.

For humans to survive we need food, water, and shelter as the bare minimum. So, the big question arises; Is it possible to produce food on Mars? Well, since humans are heterotrophs, we must consume other organisms to stay alive. To have organisms to consume, we would most likely need to cultivate autotrophs that can absorb energy from the sun and nutrients from the Martian soil.

Since Mars is the fourth furthest planet away from the sun in our solar system with Earth being the third, the light intensity on Mars would be around 44% lower than Earth’s. This is because the light waves would have to travel a longer distance and would disperse more. This would most likely cause autotrophic plants to grow at a slower rate than on earth as it would photosynthesize at a slower rate. However, the light intensity on Mars would still make it possible for plants to grow.

While the extent of the advancements in technology, when humanity eventually settles on Mars in the future is unpredictable, it is reasonable to assume transporting objects with large amounts of mass would be costly. Hence, it would be most ideal to cultivate plants on the native Martian soil.

Scientifically, using the term soil to describe the contents of the ground on Mars would be incorrect as stated by Ralph Fritsche, a senior product manager at Kennedy space station, “Soil, by definition, contains organics; it has held plant life, insects, worms. Mars doesn’t really have soil.” Thus, scientists around the world including those at NASA have developed the term ‘regolith’, as the Martian soil consists of mostly crushed volcanic rock containing nothing organic and some toxic chemicals.

All those amazing rovers that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory sent to Mars? Like Curiosity that they ‘sky craned’ down to the surface of Mars? They have instruments for analyzing the soil composition of Mars. Sure rovers and rockets and all that hardware are fascinating. But you know what makes NASA really interesting? How they share what they learn. Like their Mars soil analysis!

The results look like this:

According to the data collected by NASA’s rovers which had instruments to analyze soil composition on Mars, the most abundant compounds in Martian regolith appear to be silicon dioxide, iron oxide, aluminum oxide, magnesium oxide, and calcium oxide. Where the iron oxide gives the regolith its reddish-brown appearance.

Unfortunately, the data does not reveal signs of nitrogen, potassium, or phosphates indicating the lack of nutrients for plants to grow on Martian soil. However, with the addition of nutrients or organic matter, there is still the possibility for this regolith to aid plant growth by reducing the amount of organic matter brought from earth.

Lastly, for plants to be able to germinate and grow, they will need access to water. While there is water in the form of ice on Mars, it may not be reliable enough for humans to harvest and grow humanity based on it. Luckily, studies suggest that watering plants on Mars could require less water than on Earth. That is because water would flow differently through the Martian soil, thanks to Mars’ gravity, which is approximately 38% that of Earth’s.

Water can be obtained through the combustion of many compounds including simply oxygen with hydrogen in this equation: 2 H2 + O2 ⇾ 2 H2O. While this process looks simple enough, obtaining hydrogen on Mars can be particularly difficult. On the other hand, hydrogen has a relatively low mass compared with water so it would be reasonable to supply hydrogen from the earth. Additionally obtaining hydrogen from excess rocket fuel might also be an option.

All in all, to answer the question: Can Plants Grow On Mars? The simple answer as of 2021 would be no, but in the future with more advanced technology, the answer would most likely be changed to a yes as the conditions on Mars do not turn out to be super plant-unfriendly.

Works Cited

"Growing Green on the Red Planet." American Chemical Society,

"Growing Plants in Martian Soil." Chicago Botanic Garden, 14 2017,

"How Far? How Faint?" NASA,

"RepRage – How to Make Simulant Martian Dirt." RepRage – RepRage,

Any inquiries? 
Website Designed By:
Vrinda Jain
Grade 11, UWCSEA Dover

© 2020 by Alkene and Botany.