Potatoes on Mars? Research suggests spuds could be grown on Red Planet

It turns out Mark Watney, the protagonist in 2015's hit movie The Martian, may have been right: potatoes can grow on Mars.

Using information and some guidance from NASA's Ames Research Center, a new experiment by the International Potato Center has found that potatoes can be grown in Mars-like conditions.

The experiment was conducted in soil in the Atacama Desert in Peru, which is most similar to what is found on Mars.

There is a difference between soil and dirt: soil has organic matter, dirt does not. What the institute used is soil, but it has only minute traces of organic matter and is most like what we'd find on Mars.

 

On Feb. 14, the researchers placed a container with soil and the tuber into a specially made, hermetically sealed CubeSat (a small satellite used in space research). They placed it in a lab in Peru and delivered nutrient-rich water and made adjustments to temperature — based on a Martian day — as well as pressure, oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Sensors constantly monitored the conditions, and two cameras were set up to track the progress (if you're keen on watching a potato grow, you can watch it live here).

Within 10 days, a shoot emerged from the soil.

Colonizing Mars

As Mars is a target for human colonization, with both NASA and SpaceX announcing plans to put humans on or, at the very least, around the planet within the next 10 years, this new research is relevant.

In order for humans to survive on the planet, clearly they would need food and water. But shipping these necessities can be quite expensive, as the cost of a rocket launch corresponds with payload weight. Growing the food on site would be the most cost-effective way of settling on the Red Planet.

As for why potatoes might be grown, they are a relatively hardy crop with multiple uses and more than 4,500 varieties.

"It's not a question of if, it's when. When will we be on Mars? And when will we be growing plants there?" said Chris McKay from NASA's Ames Research Center. "Everything we're doing now is preparing for that."

Ray Wheeler, who studies plant physiology for NASA, points to the success of growing food on the International Space Station as proof that we are working toward self-sustenance in space. In 2015, astronauts ate lettuce grown on the station, a first. 

The challenge on the space station was getting water and oxygen to the roots of plants growing in microgravity where there is no up or down. That success is a step in a process that will eventually lead to an unmanned experiment on the surface of Mars, and eventually to astronauts growing food there themselves, he said.

Time and commitment

So, could human fertilizer be used, as it was in The Martian? Wheeler said yes, but perhaps we might want to use urine instead of feces, since we produce more of it. As well, urine doesn't carry the risk of bacteria and contamination. However, Wheeler noted that biomass from growing plants could be recycled or composted.

"Programs of this sort would take tens of years to evolve," Wheeler said. "It would be expensive. But I certainly think it's achievable in the next 100 years."

The institute's discovery has Earth-bound applications as well: the researchers hope that it will help the cultivation of potatoes in extreme climate conditions here at home.