Potatoes. Mars. Come on, there’s only one thing you’re thinking about: Mark Watney’s exploits in The Martian as he struggled to survive on the Red Planet. And now a study has suggested that, yes, we could actually grow potatoes on Mars.
The research was conducted by the International Potato Center, or CIP (yes, it is a real thing), located in Lima, Peru. Last year, they began collecting soil from the Atacama Desert in partnership with NASA to replicate conditions on Mars, said to be the most Mars-like soil on Earth.
This is now Phase Two of the project, where the researchers used a CubeSat – essentially a box – to recreate the atmospheric conditions of Mars. This included mimicking the temperature at day and night, the air pressure, and oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
The results showed that potatoes are indeed able to survive the harsh conditions on Mars. Tubers were found to grow in the soil, while the plant sprouted above the ground. One of the best performing varieties in this experiment was a salt-tolerant potato adapted for subtropical lowlands.
This will be important not only for future Mars missions, but also to see how potatoes will cope on Earth in areas affected by climate change. The CIP says potatoes are particularly good at adapting to extreme conditions.
Excitingly, you can watch a live stream of the experiment – and see a time-lapse of the potatoes growing – over at potatoes.space/mars.
It's kind of unnerving. CIP
"Growing crops under Mars-like conditions is an important phase of this experiment," said Julio Valdivia-Silva in a statement, a research associate with the SETI Institute and NASA’s Ames Research Center, who was involved in the study. "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.”
Why potatoes? Well, according to CIP potato breeder (yes) Walter Amoros, they have a great genetic capacity for adaptation to extreme environments, and they've also got great nutritional value. Plus, you know, there’s the whole The Martian factor.
However, future Mars explorers won’t be able to just chuck potatoes into the ground and expect them to grow. The CIP said that they’ll need to prepare the soil with a loose structure and nutrients to ensure the tubers can get enough air and water.
Now, all we need to do is actually get humans to Mars in the first place. Anyone?