Scientists Want to Grow Potatoes on Mars

Space food used to be about freeze-dried ice cream and Tang. Now it’s all about the humble spud.

NASA scientists are working with researchers at the International Potato Center (yes, that’s a thing) on a project to grow potatoes on Mars — a crop on which future colonists on the Red Planet may be able to survive should they find themselves in a bit of a pickle. But it’s not just any potato NASA is looking to harvest on Martian terrain. “It’s got to be a Martian potato that tastes good,” Julio Valdivia-Silva, a Peruvian astrobiologist with the U.S. space agency, told the Wall Street Journal.

In a move either inspired by or evocative of the Matt Damon film The Martian, NASA is experimenting with the spud as a potential Martian food source because potatoes are hardy, with some varieties especially adaptable to inhospitable climates, as well as nutritious, packed with carbs, protein, and various vitamins and minerals.

Attempts are currently underway to grow about 65 of the most-resilient types of potatoes in arid desert soil in Peru, the Journal reports. Of course, conditions on Mars may be still more unforgiving — with average temperatures hovering at around 84 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and lows reaching all the way down to 284 degrees below. There are also the challenges brought by high radiation, low gravity, extremely low levels of oxygen and high levels of carbon dioxide, dust and scant (salty) water. So the potatoes that survive the initial phase of the experiment will be put through an “acid test.”

Eventually, the goal is to transport the hardiest tubers to Mars — in “refrigerated tubes” — where they will be “planted by machines in a controlled environment before humans arrive,” the Journal reports. But even so, some of the scientists are skeptical that the potatoes will be able to survive out in the open on Mars and suspect that they’ll have to be planted within domes to control the conditions in which they are grown. As for fertilizer, there’s talk of using urine. Yep.

Guess if you’re stuck on a planet with nothing else to eat, you can’t be too choosy.

Photo courtesy of iStock

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