Based on the results of an experiment conducted by the International Potato Centre (CIP), growing potatoes on Mars might be more than just science fiction stuff — it might actually be possible. Why potatoes? Because it’s a crop that has over 4,500 varieties, multiple uses, and a high calorie count that’s perfect sustenance for people going on long trips. Besides, who doesn’t love potatoes? Well, that’s perhaps stretching it a bit. But you get what I mean.
The first phase of the experiment (aptly named Potatoes on Mars project) made use of soil from the Pampas de La Joya Desert in Peru to show that the tubers are capable of growing in dry, salty conditions. Apparently, soil from the Peruvian desert was believed to be most similar to what can likely be found on Mars. Although the experiment was a success, it was not considered entirely so because fertilizers and a little bit of ‘normal’ Earth soil was added to coax the potatoes to start growing.
For this second phase, the research team became a little more adventurous by trying to simulate Mars’ extreme conditions. They did this by filling a box (called a CubeSat which is really a small modular satellite that can protect its contents from space) with tubes, pumps and LED lights to mirror the red planet’s air pressure and atmosphere, and sensors to monitor the conditions.
The tubers were then planted in the box and sealed. After that the team started filming and recording. The result? Cameras are showing that sprouts have grown from the tubers. Live stream data of the experiment can actually be viewed through the CIP website or this link.
As Julio Valdivia-Silva (one of the researchers) said in a statement: “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 want to know what the minimum conditions are that a potato needs to survive.”
Apart from knowing that potatoes can grow on Mars, it is hoped that the discovery will also help with potato cultivation in extreme climate conditions here on Earth. With global warming poised to wreak more havoc on our planet’s climate, it is certainly welcome news that we can still grow crops despite harsh conditions and possibly less fertile soil as our environmental situation worsens.
The team is planning to conduct more experiments to determine which potato varieties will have the best chances of growing under adverse conditions.
Potatoes on Mars Project is a joint collaboration between researchers from the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Lima, Peru and NASA’s Ames Research Center (NASA ARC).