With dangerous amounts of radiation, a thin atmosphere and frigid temperatures, the first people to land on Mars will have a fight on their hands to survive. And if we do figure out how to endure these harsh conditions, what will we do when dinner time rolls around? To explore ways these pioneers might be able to live off the land, scientists have been trying to grow potatoes on Earth in Mars-like conditions. The early results are now in and are described as positive.
Dubbed the Potatoes on Mars Project, the initiative was kicked off by the International Potato Center (CIP) last February. Yes, there is an international center for potatoes, as there should be. CIP teamed up with NASA and grabbed soil from the Pampas de La Joya Desert in southern Peru, which it describes as very dry and the most Mars-like soil found on Earth.
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The idea is to better understand how potatoes might grow on Mars, but also, to learn whether they can thrive in extreme environments on Earth. If so, the studies could have have positive ramifications for food security and world hunger brought about by climate change.
So the team built a hermetically sealed container inside a CubeSat that replicates the conditions found on Mars. They used the satellite because it provided a ready-made confined environment in which to conduct the experiment. Inside they placed an LED to simulate the planet's solar radiation, and built controls for altering temperature in accordance with the Martian day and night cycle, and regulating 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," says Julio Valdivia-Silva, a researcher on the project. "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."
The team's work over the last year shows that potatoes bred at CIP were able to take hold and grow in the desert soil inside the CubeSat. One of the top performers was a highly salt-tolerant variety developed through its breeding program for use in subtropical lowlands and recently introduced into coastal areas in Bangladesh with high soil salinity. Whether or not this translates into a viable food source for future Mars explorers will require further study, but the researchers are already buoyed by the early positive results.
"It was a pleasant surprise to see that potatoes we've bred to tolerate abiotic stress were able to produce tubers in this soil," said CIP potato breeder Walter Amoros."The results indicate that our efforts to breed varieties with high potential for strengthening food security in areas that are affected, or will be affected by climate change, are working."
Check out the time-lapse below to see the potato growth play out inside the CIP's CubeSat.