It’s Official: Astronauts Can Grow Potatoes in Martian Soil

In The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney starts growing a farm on Mars using the potatoes meant for Thanksgiving dinner. As it turns out, this might actually be possible in real life if humans ever do colonize Mars. Scientists from the International Potato Center (CIP) (yes, it’s an actual thing) successfully grew potatoes grown in a synthetic soil that mimics the Martian earth.

The CIP started the Potatoes on Mars project in February 2016 in Lima, Peru to see how potatoes would grow and survive in Martian conditions. Wednesday’s announcement of positive results could open up a world of extraterrestrial agriculture that makes it much easier for future generations living on another world to keep themselves full and fed.

“The question we want to know is, can you grow food on Mars,” Chris McKay of NASA’s Ames Research Center tells Inverse. “Potatoes are a good example of a good food. We eat a lot of them. There’s been a lot of research on potatoes as a life support crop. For this particular crop, we want to know how close to Mars-like conditions can potatoes grow.”

Scientists chose to experiment with potatoes because these crops have a high genetic capacity for adapting to extreme environments. Previously, the CIP has grown potatoes that can tolerate conditions caused by climate change, like soil salinity and drought. For this experiment, scientists grew potatoes in soil from the Pampas de La Joya desert in southern Peru, which is dry and similar to Mars’s soil.

These potatoes have been growing inside a CubeSat, which has a container with soil and the tubers and a suite of sensors and cameras to monitor the conditions. It delivers nutrient rich water and simulates Mars’s temperature, air pressure, and atmosphere.

The scientists will continue conducting experiments to find out what kind of potatoes grow best and what minimum conditions potatoes need to survive, including low pressures and low temperatures. This experiment also has practical uses for Earth, as scientists will test whether potatoes can grow in extreme conditions that might hit Earth because of climate change.

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On Earth, farmers grow potatoes under warm conditions, but on Mars, the temperatures and pressure are much lower. However, if potatoes can stand Mars-like conditions, in the future, astronauts might not need to build a greenhouse that simulates Earth-like conditions.

“Maybe it could be a tenth of Earth-like conditions,” McKay says. “That makes the greenhouse a lot easier to build.”

Right now, astronauts in space currently eat freeze-dried space food. But for extended missions, like missions to Mars, this isn’t practical, as astronauts need more nutrients, and freezing takes up resources. Plus, if we move onto Mars, we need a sustainable way to grow food and produce oxygen — otherwise, we’ll run out.

NASA’s Advanced Food Technology Project is working on solutions to feed astronauts in space while minimizing waste and energy costs. If we were to send a crew to Mars now, we’d have to load their spacecraft with 7,000 pounds of food. But growing fruits and vegetables would lessen the amount of food astronauts would need to bring to Mars. Plus, astronauts will be healthier and happier from eating food that is not irradiated turkey or astronaut ice cream.

Previously, scientists have engineered an artificial leaf that can produce oxygen and sugar, proposed growing food and medicine using genetically engineered bacteria, planted sweet potatoes and strawberries in simulated Martian conditions, and even 3D printed pizza.

According to McKay, in the near future, NASA hopes to take this potato experiment to the red planet to actually grow them on Mars’s red soil. The payload would have to be as minimal as possible.

“We’d do that experiment way before people go to Mars,” McKay says. “The first time we grow potatoes on Mars isn’t going to be for someone’s dinner. It will be to make sure it works.”

Like Mark Watney, in the future, we may survive on Mars by getting our fill of potato carbs, without having to alter the soil much. But hopefully our crops don’t get destroyed by an airlock explosion.

“It looks like potatoes can do fine in the soil,” McKay says. “You don’t need to add human manure the way they did in that movie.”

Recipe of the Week: Greek Feta Fries with Roasted Garlic Saffron Aioli

Ingredients

  • 4 russet potatoes, cut into 1/4 inch wide strips
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 4-6 roasted garlic cloves, mashed*
  • 1 teaspoon fresh oregano
  • 1 teaspoon fresh basil + more for serving
  • pinch of cayenne pepper
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
  • fresh parsley, for garnish

Roasted Garlic Saffron Aioli

  • 1/2 cup olive oil based mayo**
  • 1 tablespoon dijon mustard
  • 4-6 cloves roasted garlic*
  • heavy pinch of saffron
  • 1-2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. Place cut potatoes in a large bowl and drizzle with oil. Add the roasted garlic, oregano, basil, cayenne, salt and pepper. Gently toss with your hands or two spatulas to evenly coat. Spread the fries among two baking sheets in one even layer. Bake for 15-20 minutes, then turn the oven down to 400 degrees F and flip and bake for 15-20 minutes more.
  3. Remove from the oven and toss with fresh basil, parsley and feta cheese. Serve with the aioli (recipe below).

Aioli

  1. In a blender or food processor, combine the mayo, dijon mustard, roasted garlic, saffron, lemon juice and a pinch of salt + pepper. Blend until smooth. Taste and adjust the seasonings to your liking. Serve along side the fries for dipping.

Recipe of the Week: Twice Baked Chicken Pot Pie Potatoes with Crispy Bacon

Ingredients:

  • 4 russet potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups rotisserie chicken, chopped
  • 1/2 cup celery, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped
  • 1/2 yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 1/2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 1/2 cup bacon, cooked, chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Spray a baking sheet with non-stick cooking spray. Take a fork and poke a couple of holes around each potato. Place the potatoes on the baking sheet. Drizzle tops with 1 tablespoon olive oil, s&p. Bake for about 50 minutes or until soften. Remove from oven to cool.
  3. Meanwhile, in a medium skillet preheated to medium-high heat, add the remaining olive oil, celery, carrots, onion, thyme, and s&p. Saute veggies until softened about 7 minutes. Turn the heat back to medium, add butter to skillet and melt. Sprinkle the flour over the veggies and stir to combine. Next, pour the milk over the veggies and continue to stir creating a thickened sauce about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove skillet from heat, stir in chicken, 1/2 cup mozzarella, & a dash of s&p.
  4. Once the potatoes have cooled, slice the tops open lengthwise and scoop out some of the potato. Pour some of the chicken pot pie mixture into the baked potato. Top the potatoes with 1/4 cup of the mozzarella. Place baking sheet back in the oven for five minutes or until the cheese has melted. Remove from oven, garnish with bacon, and serve immediately!