You may remember a big plot point of The Martian was Matt Damon’s character being able to grow potatoes on a planet where nothing grows. So now, just like Damon, NASA scientists are preparing to science the sh—well, they’re attempting to grow potatoes in Mars-like conditions.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, consuming a single russet-type potato can add nearly 10 percent of the daily recommended caloric load, providing four grams of fiber, five of protein and only two of sugar.
This data has motivated a group of scientists from NASA to team up with the International Potato Center, or CIP (Spanish abbreviation), in Peru to conduct an experiment growing potatoes in conditions similar to Mars with the hope of generating food for possible future manned missions to the Red Planet.
The study began in January and scientists hope to have the first results in three months, CIP spokesperson Joel Ranck tells Scientific American. For the first phase of the experiment, researchers will try to plant type LTVR (lowland tropic virus-resistant) potato clones. These potato types are known to be resistant to most viruses that attack potatoes when they first grow, and they’re known to ripen pretty quickly—in 90 to 100 days. They have a high drought tolerance and can still produce tubers at high temperatures.
These potato clones were planted in samples taken from La Joya Pampas, a sector of the Atacama Desert. The Atacama is regarded as one of the driest, most desolate places on Earth, covering nearly 105,000 square kilometers in parts of Peru, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. “The soils of the Atacama and Mars have much in common,” says Julio Valdivia-Silva, a microgravity and space biology researcher at the National Institute for Research and Training in Telecommunications of Peru, and principal scientist of the experiment.
Since studying the Atacama for the past 12 years, Valdivia has concluded that it’s the perfect stand-in for the soil on Mars. “Both have extremely low levels of microorganisms and organic material as well as high levels of oxidizing chemical elements,” he says. “For these reasons, the soils in Atacama have been used as analogous to Mars in research scenarios.”
The second phase of the experiment will be a little trickier: freezing the potatoes grown in “Martian” soil. “The trip from Earth to Mars can take about nine months, and during that time we must . . . (keep) potatoes from germinating,” says Ranck. “So we want to freeze them and thaw them in order to learn if we can revive them and plant them in Martian soil at the right time.”
Stage Three is the final stage of the experiment and involves CIP scientists launching these potato clones into outer space using NASA CubeSats. “We want to explore how they grow within a controlled atmosphere,” says Valdivia-Silva. “One of the most important features of Mars is its low atmospheric pressure, and in order to study how the plant reacts, we need a confined environment such as we can have with the CubeSat.”
“It is a very exciting idea, to think that potatoes could be one of the first meals of future Mars astronauts,” says Melissa Guzman, a researcher in planetary science and astrobiology at NASA Ames Research Center in California. We’ve been asking the question for a while now—What would it be like to live on Mars?—and now, finally we are seeing some data on the subject.
But then again, not all of this is about Mars. Scientists believe that the information gathered will also provide valuable data to find practical solutions to problems potato crops face on Earth, including the effects of global warming. “[The] potato is a highly nutritious food that can save many people from starvation. In Peru alone we have 4,000 different species,” says Ranck. “Perhaps it is a bit ironic that we have to look at Mars to understand ourselves, but no doubt that is also interesting.”
Photo credit: CIP/Memac Ogilvy via Scientific American