He science’d the shit out of it in The Martian, and it turns out, real science is starting to back him up. The International Potato Center (CIP) conducted a series of experiments to see if potatoes could grow under Mars atmospheric conditions. The experiments have the added benefit of showing if the hardy vegetable can take hold in the most extreme climates on Earth.
Last February, a tuber was planted in a CubeSat designed specifically to mimic the environment on Mars. It’s Mars in a tiny box. Air pressure, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels were all matched to what the first humans on Mars will likely encounter.
“Growing crops under Mars-like conditions is an important phase of this experiment,” says Julio Valdivia-Silva, a research associate with the SETI Institute. He also works at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lima, Peru.
Valdivia-Silva added, “If the crops can tolerate the extreme conditions that we are exposing them to in our CubeSat, they have a good chance to grow on Mars. We will do several rounds of experiments to find out which potato varieties do best. “We want to know what the minimum conditions are that a potato needs to survive.”
Let’s see how the tuber did.
That’s not a whole crop of potatoes, but it’s a promising start. Like I said, science is starting to back him up. Keyword on starting. It won’t be as easy as just trucking in some Martian dirt and start planting.
For this experiment, researchers used soil from the Pampas de La Joya desert in Southern Peru as their Mars analog. With the help of some extra fertilized soil (for nutrition and structure) the tuber was able to grow in the dry, salty soil.
The experiment suggests future Mars missions can have potatoes on the menu. But they’re going to need a little help. Astronauts will need to make sure the soil has a loose structure and extra nutrients to give the tubers enough air and water to grow.
“It was a pleasant surprise to see that potatoes we’ve bred to tolerate abiotic stress were able to produce tubers in this soil,” CIP potato breeder Walter Amoros said.
While it’s fun to speculate about the potential of potatoes on the Red Planet, the experiments show certain potato varieties can withstand even the harshest environments on Earth.
“The results indicate that our efforts to breed varieties with high potential for strengthening food security in areas that are affected, or will be affected by climate change, are working,” he said.
Still, the implications for potatoes on Mars are intriguing. Sure, it’s not as simple as tossing some potatoes in the ground and setting up a sprinkler system – but it also might not be as difficult as we first thought.
The potential viability of growing food on Mars will be one of the many missions NASA and other space agencies will look to conduct before placing humans on the surface. NASA isn’t about to let the astronauts plant and eat the first potatoes grown on Mars. First, they’ll make sure it works. Then, they’ll make sure it doesn’t kill you.
Between now and then, researchers will use experiments like this one to help feed folks living in the most extreme climates on Earth.
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