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.”