Space

Mars potato study sprouts promising early results

Mars potato study sprouts prom...
Plant growth of a potato raised in a Mars simulated environment
Plant growth of a potato raised in a Mars simulated environment
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One of the secondary objectives of the Potatoes on Mars Project is to investigate how the vegetables can be raised in harsh conditions on Earth
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One of the secondary objectives of the Potatoes on Mars Project is to investigate how the vegetables can be raised in harsh conditions on Earth
Plant growth of a potato raised in a Mars simulated environment
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Plant growth of a potato raised in a Mars simulated environment

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.

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."

One of the secondary objectives of the Potatoes on Mars Project is to investigate how the vegetables can be raised in harsh conditions on Earth
One of the secondary objectives of the Potatoes on Mars Project is to investigate how the vegetables can be raised in harsh conditions on Earth

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.

Source: CIP

CIP /NASA /UTEC Potatoes in Mars

11 comments
Bob Flint
First you have to get there alive & healthy, not an easy feat, and comes with an enormous price tag. Second without air, you won't have to worry about water or food, another major hurtle, and again a cost... Third not one single country alone could afford it, and the likelihood of collaboration is very slim since we as humans fight for survival on earth already, and haven't mastered that first step...
DavidColvin
I thought I read that Mars' soil has perchlorate in it. Did the faux soil contains perchlorate? And if yes, is it in the potatoes?
Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret
I wouldn't want want to go to Mars even with plenty of food, water, air and entertainment. Unless you go underground, there is no effective way to shield yourself from radiation every time you're standing on the surface.
Rocket
Really! come on guys , Matt Damon has already proved we can grow potatoes on mars!
Nairda
Also no mention of radiation level exposure on potatoes. Would these be grown in an underground Martian cave deep below surface ?
Douglas Bennett Rogers
Grow the potatoes and similar plants robotically on Mars for a hundred years. They will cover the planet and terraform it. By that time, an economical transportation system will be available to import humans.
Arahant
Wont the potatoes become irradiated? also the atmosphere is so light i wouldnt think the concentrations of carbon dioxide would be high enough, although i have to assume they thought about that an mimicked the carbon dioxide levels, but doesnt sound like they mimicked radiation levels. It does seem promising though, atleast at this preliminary stage.
Nik
Getting a potato to sprout is easy, getting a viable crop is a lot harder. Why go to Mars to live anyway? It will be necessary to build pressurised, shielded living quarters, to live there. Its a bit like taking a camping holiday in the arctic, when you live in the Mediterranean. It should be a lot easier to build space stations in the same orbit as Earth, or maybe even in an orbit closer to the Sun. They could spin to produce artificial gravity of 1G, which couldnt be achieved on the surface of Mars, and provide a far better environment, without having to travel 140 + millions of miles.
G.AllenBowman
Scientists following the guidelines of Hollywood vs. Real science. A potato is not probably the first food item that could be grown on Mars that would be sustainable period more likely would be a simple life-form like algae oh that is plated out over a reflective surface and a little bit of water to produce a powdered protein when dried. Algae is certainly a lot easier to transport then potatoes and can be nourished by human urine. So potato guys stop playing around and wasting tax dollars and set up a blue green algae apparatus that will not only produce oxygen but thrive in a Mars like environment since it will take house ins and thousands of years and probably a thermonuclear explosion to melt the ice and throw enough debris into the thin atmosphere two start life before humans could ever terraform that piece of rocks out there called Mars. Humans have a minut threshold of Environmental abilities and Mars certainly is not the planet to sustain life-forms like humans in the foreseeable centuries period sending people there to live would just be a stupid idea resulting in almost guaranteed death. If we do send humans to Mars I suggest inmates. Maybe their composting bodies will produce enough bacterial growth to get things going on that cold dry Rock. A thin film algae is probably the first food item in space that could be sustained is such a nasty environment. Leave the potatoes to the peruvians and Irish.
BrianK56
What makes people live in Antarctica where the lows can reach -70 or the deserts with daytime highs of 120 and freezing at night? People are tough as nails and can find the answers to the most complex of situations. Mars will be figured out, it may not be pleasant at first but as issues are addressed that will change.