Before it can send astronauts to Mars, NASA needs to figure out how to feed them there. To work that out, the US space agency teamed up with a research group in Peru focused exclusively on spud research.
Last week, CIP announced that after a year, it had been able to successfully grow potatoes in a plot of land engineered to mimic Mars’ harsh environment.
On Earth, the land where we grow crops typically contains nutrient-rich soil, long periods of sunlight and warmth, and a carbon-dioxide rich atmosphere. Provided plants get water, crops have everything they need to grow. But on Mars, soil is salty, loose, and lacking chemicals like nitrogen, which plants need to grow. Although it can get to a balmy 70°F (21°C) near the Martian equator in the summer, the average temperature is around -80°F.
In February 2016, engineers created a small plot of land imitating a version of Martian climate where plants could possibly grow. They used soil from the Pampas de La Joya desert in Peru—similar to Martian soil because it is home (pdf) to very little life and few organic compounds. They also created atmospheric conditions similar to Mars.
Researchers planted seeds for potatoes that had been bred to withstand salty soil and gave them water that had been fortified with extra plant nutrients. After a year, the team reported they had successfully grown a small crop of potatoes—meaning they could probably grow on Mars, too.
They only prove that it’s likely possible for potatoes to survive in Martian conditions. Fine-tuning logistics, like figuring out how to bring the seeds, water, and plant nutrients to our neighboring planet is something else entirely.