Can You Grow Plants On Mars? (4 Things You Would Need)


Earth and Mars have some differences, but a day on Mars is only 41 minutes longer than a day on Earth.  With this in mind, it is exciting to consider the possibility that plants may be able to survive on the next planet out from the Sun.

So, can you grow plants on Mars?  To grow plants on Mars, we would need to provide the ideal temperature, light, atmosphere, and nutrition for plants.  This would involve cold protection and artificial light, as well as the proper air and soil for plant growth.

Of course, certain plants will be better able to survive on Mars than others.  We may also be able to produce plants that will do well on Mars.

For example, we could breed plants that can resist cold or that need less sunlight to grow.  Research is already underway at NASA to make such discoveries.

In this article, we’ll talk about what you would need to grow plants on Mars.  You may never make it to Mars to try your hand at gardening there, but if you do, this information will give you a heads up on what to expect!

Let’s get started.

Can You Grow Plants On Mars?

The plants we are familiar with have evolved to survive on planet Earth.  A plant from Earth would not be able to survive on Mars – at least, not without some help from humans.

onion leaves growing
Just because a plant can survive on Earth doesn’t mean it will survive on Mars (at least, not without help from humans)./

Certain plants are more cold-hardy and drought-tolerant, so they would have a better chance of surviving in the harsh environment on Mars.  However, this is no guarantee – survival on Mars would be a challenge for even the hardiest plants from Earth.

Can A Plant Survive On Mars?

In order for a plant to survive on Mars, we would need to take care of the same needs that the plant has on Earth, including:

  • Temperature – this includes both daytime and nighttime temperature ranges.
  • Sunlight – this includes the intensity of sunlight and the length of days, seasons, and years.
  • Atmosphere – this includes things like water, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide.
  • Nutrition – this includes soil pH and nutrients necessary for growth.

Let’s start off with one of the biggest and most important challenges: temperature.

Temperature On Mars

A plant from Earth would not be able to survive on Mars without some serious cold protection.  According to the National Weather Service, the average temperature on Mars is -81 degrees Fahrenheit (-63 degrees Celsius), compared to the Earth’s average temperature of 57 degrees Fahrenheit (14 degrees Celsius).

frost
Much of Mars is too cold for plants to survive – at least for the cold part of the year.

In fact, the temperature on Mars ranges from a low of -220 degrees Fahrenheit (-140 degrees Celsius) to a high of 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius).  According to the University of California, the higher end of this range (70 degrees Fahrenheit) would be the perfect temperature for germinating seeds and growing many crops.

However, many plants cannot even tolerate frost (32 degrees Fahrenheit or 0 degrees Celsius).  Even those plants that can tolerate frost would have no chance of surviving temperatures well below zero.

If you wanted to grow plants on Mars, you would need to keep the plants warmer than the natural temperatures on the planet.  One idea that comes to mind is commonly used on Earth to grow plants and keep them warm: a greenhouse.

After all, the greenhouse effect applies on planets other than Earth.  We would see the same effect on Mars as well.

If you used a clear cover made of glass or plastic, you could build a greenhouse or dome that would trap heat underneath the dome.  Another benefit is that this structure would provide protection from the wind and dust on Mars, to prevent soil erosion or damage to plants.

However, a greenhouse or dome by itself is unlikely to raise the temperature enough to allow plants to grow.  You would likely need another heat source to reach the ideal temperature for seed germination and plant growth.

Sunlight On Mars

Mars receives sunlight, but there are two problems with the sunlight that Mars receives.

daylight
The sunlight on Earth is stronger than that received on Mars, since Earth is closer to the Sun.

First, the sunlight on Mars is less intense than the sunlight received on Earth, since:

  • Mars is farther away from the Sun than Earth is
  • Mars has dust storms that block out some sunlight

According to this article on PubMed, there is 2/3 as much light on Mars as there is on Earth.  As a result, we would need some sort of artificial light to supplement plants with what they need to grow.

Second, the lack of an ozone layer on Mars means that damaging ultraviolet radiation is not filtered out as it is on Earth.  As a result, plants may not be able to survive this radiation without help from us.

Can Photosynthesis Happen On Mars?

Photosynthesis can happen on Mars, just like it can on Earth or anywhere else.  However, the conditions need to be right for photosynthesis to occur, and this would require some engineering.

Mars
Photosynthesis may be possible on Mars, but artificial lighting would be necessary.

In order to produce oxygen and sugar (energy) by photosynthesis, a plant needs the following at a minimum:

  • carbon dioxide
  • water
  • light

The first two items are present on Mars (more on that later), and Mars does receive sunlight.  However, it may not be enough light to support photosynthesis for many of the plants we are familiar with.

Is There Enough Sunlight On Mars To Grow Plants?

There might be enough sunlight on the brightest parts of Mars to grow shade tolerant plants.  However, growing plants on Mars would probably require artificial lights.

Artificial lights are already used frequently for growing plants on Earth.  For example, when gardeners start seeds indoors in late winter or early spring, they might use LEDs or other “grow lights” to help the plants along.

In fact, some growers use indoor lighting exclusively, like in these “freight farms” which are housed in shipping containers.

LED lights
LEDs or other artificial lights could help with growing plants on Mars.

Luckily, the length of a day on Mars (the time it takes to spin on its axis) is 24.6 hours.  This is only 41 minutes longer than a day on Earth.

However, the amount of daylight will differ, depending on the season (time of year).

Does Mars Have Seasons?

According to NASA, Mars has four seasons, just like Earth.  However, each season lasts about twice as long as one on Earth (due to the longer year on Mars).

To be more precise, the length of a year on Mars (the time to orbit the sun) is 687 Earth days.  Compare this to 365.25 Earth days for an Earth year.

Mars
The atmosphere on Mars is mostly carbon dioxide, and it is much thinner than Earth’s atmosphere.

This means that a year on Mars is much longer than one on Earth (about 88% longer).  This could make for a longer growing season on Mars, but it could also mean a longer winter that would be more difficult for plants (and humans) to survive.

Atmosphere On Mars

Mars has its own atmosphere, but there are some problems to contend with if you want to grow plants:

According to NASA and Arizona State University, the atmospheric pressure on Mars is 6 to 7 millibars, compared to 1013 millibars on Earth.  This means that the atmosphere on Mars is less than 1% as thick as that of Earth.

Does Mars Have An Atmosphere?

Mars has an atmosphere but it is mostly carbon dioxide, with very little oxygen or nitrogen.  Although plants can use carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, they will need nitrogen and oxygen as well.

On Earth, nitrogen-fixing bacteria take nitrogen gas from the atmosphere and turn it into ammonia and ammonium.  Plants can use these forms of nitrogen for their growth, but they cannot use nitrogen gas itself.

clover
Legumes, like clover, have nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots that convert nitrogen in the air into nitrogen compounds that plants can use fro growth.

Without nitrogen gas in the atmosphere (and without nitrogen-fixing bacteria), plants would need another source of nitrogen.  This could be accomplished with fertilizer, but a more “natural” solution would be to provide nitrogen and the bacteria that turn it into compounds that plants can use.

Plant cells also use oxygen, and the lack of oxygen on Mars would also present a challenge when growing plants.

Does Mars Have Water?

Mars does have water.  Originally, most of the water on Mars was thought to be ice, but NASA has confirmed that there is also liquid water on Mars.

water
Mars does have liquid water, but many parts of Mars are so cold that its water is ice.

Plants would need liquid water to survive, since nutrients must be dissolved in water so that plants can absorb them.  However, liquid water might not be located in the warmer areas that would be more suitable for growing plants.

Is There Enough Water On Mars To Grow Plants?

Some scientists believe that Mars had plenty of liquid water years ago.  At one point, it may have been much more similar to what Earth is like now.

planet Earth
Scientists believe that Mars used to be much more similar to what Earth is like now.

However, the planet is so cold now that most of the water is in the form of ice.  Although the ice could be melted to provide water for growing plants, it would take effort and energy to move the ice and to melt it.

Does Mars Have Oxygen?

Mars does have some oxygen, but there is relatively little in the planet’s atmosphere (only 0.16% by volume).  According to this article from NASA, the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere can rise by as much as 30% in the spring and summer.

However, even this increase might not be enough for plants to survive (it is certainly not enough for humans to survive).  Once plants begin to grow on Mars, they will produce some oxygen by photosynthesis.

potato plants
Plants do produce oxygen by photosynthesis, but they also need oxygen to survive.

However, most oxygen on Earth (50% to 80%) comes from the ocean, rather than from plants growing on land.  Until we can grow plants and create oceans on Mars, we will need to find another source of oxygen for humans to breathe.

Plant Nutrition On Mars

Plants on Mars would still need the same nutrients for growth and development as they would need on Earth, including:

  • Nitrogen
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Sulfur

Just like on Earth, different parts of Mars would have different soil compositions and mixtures of nutrients.  If any particular nutrient was lacking in the soil, we could supplement it with specialized fertilizer brought from Earth.

soil
Fertilizers could add nutrients to the soil that are necessary for plant growth.

However, we could bypass soil altogether by growing plants using hydroponics, aquaponics, or aeroponics.  You can learn more about growing plants without soil in my article here.

However, even if you grow without soil, you will still need to provide nutrients in the water (or in a spray solution for aeroponics).

hydroponics
Hydroponics involves growing plants without soil.

Whether you grow with soil or without it, you will need to make sure that you maintain the proper pH for plant growth.  This will depend on the plant you are growing, but a pH of 6 to 7 is ideal for most plants.

Finally, remember that you would need to watch out for dangerous chemicals in the soil when growing on Mars.  For example, you would need to remove perchlorates (which are toxic to humans at high levels) from the soil on Mars before growing plants intended for human consumption.

What Plant Would Survive On Mars?

According to ScienceAlert.com, some of the plants that could grow on Mars include:

  • Tomatoes
  • Rye
  • Radishes
  • Peas
  • Leeks
  • Spinach
  • Garden Rocket
  • Cress
  • Quinoa
  • Chives
green shoulders on tomato
Tomatoes are a garden classic here on Earth – and someday, they might be on Mars too!

The experiment used simulated Martian soil, but they did not need to solve the problem of harsh ultraviolet radiation and extremely cold temperatures.  If we can solve these problems, we might be able to see plants survive on Mars someday.

Conclusion

Now you know what we would need to grow plants on Mars.  It might take some time, but it is feasible that plants might grow on Mars someday – with some help from humans.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

You can also read about the unique challenges of growing plants on the moon in my article here.

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here.  Enjoy!

~Jonathon

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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