NASA-backed study says growing potatoes on Mars might actually work

Libby Plummer
Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) shows off his potato crop in The Martian ((20th Century Fox))

The 2015 film The Martian saw stranded astronaut Mark Watney growing his own potato crop on Mars in order to survive, and it turns out this might actually be possible.

And with Congress having just passed a bill that puts a Mars mission on the map by 2033, the ability to grow food on the Martian surface may be vital in the near future.

Just last week, NASA unveiled plans to use a ‘magnetic shield’ to restore the atmosphere to Mars to a more Earth-like environment.

The experiment used sealed boxes and desert soil to replicate the harsh conditions of Mars (CIP)

The new NASA-backed research carried out by the International Potato Centre (CIP) in Lima, Peru has shown that it is possible to grow spuds on Mars, saying “preliminary results are positive.”

The research centre set out to recreate the extreme growing conditions of Mars by planting tubers in desert soil inside a hermetically sealed ‘CubeSat’ – a rocket-launchable box.

Water hoses, LEDs, pumps and temperature gauges were used to replicate the harsh conditions of the Martian surface, including its air pressure, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

“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,” said Julio Valdivia-Silva, a research associate with the SETI Institute who has worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center and now works at UTEC in Lima.

“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”.

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While the experiment does not categorically prove that potatoes will grow on Mars, it does strongly suggest that it is possible.

For future deep space missions and the journey to Mars, new methods of providing food for astronauts will be required, especially if there is any hope of setting up colonies on other worlds.

Not only could the findings of the ‘potatoes on Mars’ experiment help with future space missions, they could also lead to new farming methods, helping people survive in extreme environments on Earth.